Freezing of gait is one of the most disabling features of Parkinson’s. People describe this as the feeling of one’s feet being stuck to the floor and is often made much worse by anxiety. Dr Will Young and Prof Mark Wilson are working with researchers from Brunel University London to develop mental strategies for people with Parkinson’s to use to step from a freeze. To test these strategies they must safely induce freezing and measure participants’ movements as they try to make a step. This is very difficult because freezing can be unpredictable, making it very difficult to measure in laboratory settings. Previous research in this area has been limited to using small force plates, meaning that the majority of freezing episodes that happen in the laboratory are not measured. VSimulators changes this and provides a way to seamlessly measure walking and freezing as participants navigate a virtual reality environment that is representative of common daily tasks, but also likely to cause freezing (e.g. walking through a cluttered room). Dr Will Young then uses the 3.7m2 array of force plates to measure people’s balance during freezes, wherever they occur, along with attempts to make a step. Data from force plates will be combined with information about body movements (motion capture) and how participants visually search their environment prior to, and during, freeze events (gaze tracker build into virtual reality headset).
This work will eventually include brain imaging techniques to study cognitive processes related to freezing, with a particular focus on anxiety freeze severity. VSimuators also makes it possible to study balance responses to unpredictable platform movements and determine factors that influence the ability to make recovery steps.
The research team are planning to create an open access database of freezing events that will facilitate international efforts to progress our understanding of freezing pathology and create opportunities for improving therapies and treatments.