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Breakthrough app boosts confident walking for Parkinson’s patients

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A groundbreaking mobile app, designed to enhance the walking abilities of individuals living with Parkinson’s Disease, has been unveiled by UNSW biomedical engineers that aims to train Parkinson’s patients to achieve better and more sustained walking patterns.

Developed in collaboration with people with Parkinson’s Disease, the newly launched app offers guidance and instructions to enhance walking proficiency and duration for those grappling with the condition.

Dr Matthew A Brodie, a leading biomedical engineer at UNSW Sydney, spearheaded the creation of the Walking Tall app following a comprehensive clinical trial. The pivotal research was funded by the Shake It Up Australia Foundation and the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Central to the app’s capabilities is a gait re-training feature, allowing users to personalise their training duration and pace. The app then employs a rhythmic metronomic beat across three distinct walking speeds to stimulate movement.

The freely available app, downloadable on both iOS and Android platforms, includes essential cues such as ‘walk tall,’ ‘shoulders back,’ and ‘focus on big steps,’ while also providing motivational audio commentary.

For individuals unaffected by Parkinson’s, walking is a taken-for-granted activity. However, the debilitating effects of the disease, which stem from impaired nerve cells in the brain responsible for movement coordination, can make walking an arduous task.

This app addresses gait dysfunction – a common consequence of Parkinson’s Disease – which often results in compromised coordination, shortened step length, reduced quality of life, diminished independence and a heightened risk of falls, affecting approximately 70% of those afflicted.

With an estimated global Parkinson’s population of 10 million, including 150,000 in Australia alone, the significance of such a technological breakthrough cannot be overstated.

Dr Brodie’s research, conducted at the state-of-the-art facilities of Neuroscience Research Australia in Sydney, underscored the value of direct input from Parkinson’s patients during the app’s development.

The app’s positive impact extends beyond physical gains. “This app can give people confidence and also a sense of achievement that they can be empowered and do something for themselves to help their own condition,” Dr Brodie said. He emphasised his goal to effect immediate change and expressed confidence in the app’s ability to aid Parkinson’s patients worldwide.

A clinical trial involving 62 Parkinson’s patients demonstrated the app’s efficacy. Half of the participants utilised the app for gait training, while the other half followed the Otago Exercise Program (OEP), a traditional walking regimen. After 13 weeks, the app users logged an impressive average training time of 150 minutes per week, compared to the OEP group’s 60 minutes.

The comprehensive trial report, inclusive of analysis from an associated biomedical device, is slated for publication in a forthcoming journal under the review of a clinical trial advisory board.

Meanwhile, further advancements have been integrated into the app, featuring specific training sessions tailored to various walking paces, as well as periods of rest. Dr Brodie’s spin-off company, Walking Tall Health, is dedicated to refining and expanding the app’s impact.

The innovative approach targets gait adaptability, aiming to counteract hypokinesia, a common symptom in Parkinson’s patients. By encouraging exaggerated steps, the app assists in normalising walking patterns.

Walking Tall Health has also been pivotal in ongoing app development, collaborating with the Tyree Institute of Health Engineering (Tyree IHealthE) Catalyst Grant. The app’s expansion is also part of the $12 million ARC Research Hub for Connected Sensors for Health, led by UNSW Scientia Professor Chun Wang.

Dr Wang noted the app’s role in enhancing confidence, speed and gait for Parkinson’s patients, highlighting its potential to offer substantial benefits to individuals worldwide with Parkinsonian gait issues.

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