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Cutting edge technology in healthcare research: Coming on in leaps and bounds

For Parkinson's Awareness Week 2017 (10-16 April), we're publishing a series of blogs throughout the week which will provide unique insights into Parkinson's from a range of perspectives - from those living with Parkinson's to the researchers & clinicians dedicated to developing better treatments.

We are fortunate to live in a world where advancements in technology support independent living, promote good health and supplement our social activities. Perhaps less obvious is how these technologies facilitate the pioneering research that we conduct at the Clinical Ageing Research Unit. I work as a researcher in the Brain and Movement Research Group which is a multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Professor Lynn Rochester. We conduct research into the effect of ageing and neurodegenerative disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia) on our ability to walk safely. This blog will briefly highlight two of the ways in which cutting edge technology assists our research both in the Gait laboratory and the community.

"...these technologies facilitate the pioneering research that we conduct at the Clinical Ageing Research Unit."

Many of us have been to the cinema to see the latest avatar-based movie which immerses the viewer within the movie scene as a result of impressive computer graphics and visual effects. The viewer experience is enhanced by closing the gap between what is real and what is virtual. To create this perceived reality, cameras capable of taking hundreds of images a second are used to model movement so that the animation is realistic and finally avatars are superimposed to create our movie characters. We use the very same technology and apply it for use within a clinical healthcare setting. By measuring movement in such precise detail and more specifically the complex interactions between our body segments (i.e. head, torso arms and legs), we can understand why walking can be challenging and why some people may be at risk of falls. This information is then used to shape healthcare interventions to improve walking and prevent unsteadiness and falls.

To complement our lab-based work we consider it vital to be able to gain information about functional movement (i.e. daily tasks such as walking) from large groups of people in their home environment. To achieve this we use a small body worn monitor called an accelerometer. Accelerometers have been around since the early 1920’s, and so whilst not a new gadget they are becoming increasingly more sophisticated than they once were. Accelerometers are already in widespread use within the transport world where they inform the driver of how fast the car is travelling and trigger the deployment of airbags upon collision. They may also be found in many of our consumer electronics such as smartphones and sat navs. The components that make up these gadgets are becoming smaller and smaller meaning that they are lightweight, portable and carried upon our person comfortably. Our team has developed methods of understanding the output from accelerometers in terms of how we move. By placing a small accelerometer on the lower back we are able to collect information about physical activity and walking out in the community to understand how this varies between people and changes over time.

"...these advances will start to play a more prominent role in clinical care by assisting decision making and aiding the diagnosis of movement disorders."

Given the speed at which technology advances it is only fitting that these devices are adapted to serve a wider and more important purpose than social entertainment. For our research team, advanced technology broadens the scope for what is possible: we can look at movement in a magnified way and gather information about the quality and volume of movement from large populations in the comfort of their own environment. We envisage that these advances will start to play a more prominent role in clinical care by assisting decision making and aiding the diagnosis of movement disorders. This will help to ensure that healthcare is providing the best possible management of patients. Facilitating home-based assessments on a large scale allows us to track health and independence with time so the interventions and therapies offered may be preventative. This approach to research allows us to translate technological advancements into healthcare applications to offer personalised healthcare to help us continue to live longer, healthier lives.

Dr Lisa Alcock
Gait Laboratory Manager
Brain and Movement Research Group
Institute of Neuroscience
Newcastle University

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