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Helping Parkinson's disease sufferers live a better life

Parkinson's disease affects an estimated one in every 500 people in Europe – it is the second most common disease after Alzheimer's. With so many afflicted, one research team is trying to help people with Parkinson’s living at home to overcome the social exclusion its symptoms can cause.

A degenerative disease of later life with widely varying symptoms, Parkinson's disease (PD) can result in poor mobility or paralysis, speech disorders and depression, causing people to drop out of life's flow. It is an idiopathic disease, and researchers suspect both genetic causes and environmental pollution as contributory factors.

Partners in the ParkService initiative co-funded by the European Commission’s eTEN programme are testing a set of services that could help sufferers better manage the disease symptoms. This eInclusion project, which began in August 2004 and ends 31 March 2007, involves research institutes in four countries, Italy, Germany, the UK and Greece, in testing three prototype services.

A fascinating online video shows a stooped man with Parkinson's disease shuffling with difficulty across an apartment. After briefly observing a line of rectangles of white paper lined up on the floor before him, he can suddenly stand up straight and walk briskly over the paper trail. But at the end of the paper trail, the man stoops again and resumes shuffling.

The video demonstrates how visual markers known as ‘cues’, like these simple pieces of paper, can help people with Parkinson's disease do things that their damaged neuromotor libraries have made much more difficult, says Reynold Greenlaw at UK-based Oxford Computer Consultants Ltd., coordinator of the eTEN co-funded ParkService project.

ParkService is "testing the European market for a device that lets a person with Parkinson's see the virtual equivalent of those pieces of paper, wherever he walks," says Greenlaw. That device, called INDIGO, is the core of ParkService's prototype set of telematic tools, which aim to help PD patients to live and communicate with both clinicians and others.

INDIGO is a pair of virtual-reality eyeglasses equipped with electronics and a rechargeable battery, and a belt-or pocket worn mini-computer that can be configured remotely. "A monitor in the glasses puts moving stripes in the person's peripheral vision, providing that helpful visual cue," says Greenlaw.

Originally named ParkWalker, the INDIGO eyeglasses won the European Commission’s Assistive Technology Award in November 2004. They were originally developed under an earlier IST-sponsored project, PARREHA, which lead to the setting up of a joint company, ParkAid, which is the motor of the ParkService consortium.

ParkLine, another mature prototype, will give patients a secure, easy-to-use way to use their televisions to communicate with their physicians and other disease sufferers. They can type in symptom diaries using a television remote control or send video from a webcam. ParkLine is designed to keep bandwidth low in order to keep costs down.

Greenlaw says that, "We received positive feedback on ParkLine following a group presentation at the Schneckenhaus, a large group home in Germany for people with Parkinson's. Now we're working on interface customisations that people have asked for, like language and bigger buttons on the remote control."

The browser-based ParkClinic tool allows doctors to receive ParkLine messages and images from their patients. "This is the system's least challenging part. Doctors have tried it at the Institute of Neurology, but not formally," says Greenlaw.

The INDIGO system costs 2,000 euros. ParkService support will be paid for in a variety of ways. "In Germany private-health insurance and patient organisations may pay for it. In the UK we will try to get backing from the National Health Service, and in Italy, patient organisations will pay." explains Greenlaw.

ParkService is a market validation project, and rollout is set for March 2007. "We'll start in Germany, because they have a unified structure for dealing with people with Parkinson's, as well as a very developed internet infrastructure and Europe's largest population," says Greenlaw.

"For now, our objective is to use feedback from the ParkService pilots to fine-tune the tools. Then, our next step is to get them into people's homes and doctors' offices in larger numbers," says Greenlaw.

Source: Based on information from PARKSERVICE

Jernett Karensen | alfa
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