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IT Project Offers Help To Parkinson’s Sufferers

24.02.2005


One in twenty people who are paralysed by Parkinson’s disease could soon be able to walk thanks to the PARREHA project, funded with the help of 1.68 million euros from the Information Society Technologies (IST) area of the EU’s Framework Programme.



With two in every 1000 people suffering with Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the central nervous system, there are currently 700,000 people affected in the European Union alone – and this number is forecast to increase as the population gets older. Parkinson’s is caused by the loss of brain cells that produce dopamine - a chemical messenger responsible for transmitting signals within the brain – leaving sufferers unable to direct or control their movement in the normal manner. This is why many people who have Parkinson’s have difficulty walking in conditions that would normally present no problems - such as an unobstructed corridor.

Ironically, scientists have discovered that when visual ’obstructions’ - often as simple as pieces of paper set down on the floor - are placed in their way, some people with Parkinson’s can walk normally. This little understood effect is called kinesia paradoxa. PARREHA utilised the development of virtual reality technology to develop a light headset that enables the wearer to see the virtual visual cues wherever they look and at the same continue to see their actual surroundings.


“This type of lightweight, wearable headset has a display that is very small and looks like a normal pair of glasses”, explained project co-ordinator Dr Reynold Greenlaw, from Oxford Computer Consultants. “Our headset enables a number of people with Parkinson’s to move freely and more safely in their normal environment. This is a major achievement, especially when you take into account that falling is the second greatest cause of death in people with Parkinson’s disease. It will be of special interest to people suffering from vascular Parkinson’s as they do not currently have the option of drug therapy.

“In a series of trials and exhibitions during the project we demonstrated how the headset helps. After trying to walk unaided in an unobstructed corridor, the user put on the virtual reality glasses. Through these they see both the corridor and a series of brightly coloured stripes that scroll slowly towards the viewer as if they are walking down a tunnel. Working with the Parkinson’s group, Europark, we showed this device was highly effective for a certain group of people with Parkinson’s. It has an enormous effect on their quality of life and does not rely on any drugs or surgery."

The commercial partners in PARREHA have now formed a company called ParkAid (http://www.parkaid.net), based in Italy, to work with manufacturers of wearable computer displays. The latest prototype device won the EU’s 2004 ‘New Territory’ prize for Assistive Technology (http://www.parkaid.net) and the Institute of Neurology is now undertaking a two-year clinical trial into its effectiveness. The equipment should soon be certified and, although exact pricing has yet to be set, Dr Greenlaw estimates that the equipment - including the headset, PDA and special software - will cost around 2,000 euros.

“This is another example of how information society technology is being developed, with the help of EU Framework Funding, into applications that reach way beyond what are considered the normal boundaries of computer buffs”, says Peter Walters, FP6UK’s National Contact Point for IST. “It shows how valuable research and development work can be in improving the quality of life for many of us.”

“The Framework Programmes are the EU’s main vehicle for support of leading edge, internationally collaborative R&D. The current Framework Programme (FP6) runs until 2006 and organisations wanting free information on how to access some of the €19bn available should log on to http://fp6uk.ost.gov.uk or call central telephone support on 0870 600 6080.”

Dave Sanders | alfa
Further information:
http://fp6uk.ost.gov.uk

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