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Technology can help keep Parkinson's patients on their feet and control 'freezing gait'

A simple way to overcome it is said to be as easy as flicking a switch
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Posted at 3:02 PM, May 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-13 12:33:40-04

SANTA MARIA, Calif. — John Dunphy's life consists of a lot of pills.

"This is the most important one, it helps me," he said.

He needs the meds for the disorder he lives with: Parkinson's. His hands shake and he doesn't have control over the way his head moves. Sometimes, he can't make his feet take steps when he wants them to.

"It was quite a few years – not quite a few, maybe two years, I was able to walk a little bit, but the freezing would start and it would take me a while to get going," said Dunphy.

The symptom or condition is known as "freezing gait."

"When a person is with Parkinson's with freezing, they may be standing and they may go to step and they can't lift up that foot to make a step," said Kelly Mills an expert on movement disorders and neurology with Johns Hopkins University.

Basically, when someone has Parkinson's sometimes their brain can try and tell their feet to move, but the signals won't get there. Luckily for Dunphy and people like him, there's a simple way to overcome it. It's as easy as flicking a switch.

"For some reason when I turn it on and look at that, it's easier to move my legs," said Dunphy.

"For people with Parkinson's all these automatic movements are really hard. You know, talking, walking, swallowing," said Sidney Collin.

Collin developed a device, called Nexstride, which helps people like John be able to walk.

"If we look at [the] freezing of gait, if we change the intention of the movement from being something that's automatic to being something that's distinct and goal-oriented, then we can change the part of the brain that's being activated and allow someone to reconnect the brain and the body," said Collin.

NexStride uses visual cues, a laser and audio cues, along with a metronome, to make walking a goal. And it helps people like Dunphy move around and stay independent.

"If I was in my room and I didn't have the device and I had to go to the bathroom it would be an issue. But the device enables me to get moving," said Dunphy.

"I was really struggling, but then the real struggle went away," he said.