‘Walking Tall’ app developed to assist Parkinson’s disease mobility

Posted 11 months ago by David McManus
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Dr Mathew A Brodie, University of New South Wales, Sydney, biomedical engineer, developed the ‘Walking Tall’ app in collaboration with people who are living with Parkinson’s disease. [Source: supplied]
Dr Mathew A Brodie, University of New South Wales, Sydney, biomedical engineer, developed the ‘Walking Tall’ app in collaboration with people who are living with Parkinson’s disease. [Source: supplied]

Key points:

  • Parkinson’s disease is commonly associated with just tremors, but some may also experience non-motor symptoms
  • Differential diagnosis is important, as associated symptoms may show up for a variety of reasons other than Parkinson’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease does not have a cure, although interventions might assist with ones’ living situation

 

The Shake It Up Australia Foundation and the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research have funded a new app developed by researchers from the University of New South Wales [UNSW], Sydney, to assist with Parkinson’s disease mobility.

Dr Mathew Brodie led the UNSW team behind the ‘Walking Tall’ app development, with researchers hoping that the new software could track and support the gait of people with Parkinson’s. Those with the disease were instrumental in the app’s co-design, which will educate people with the condition about long-term and improved walking.

“Parkinson’s is a big problem in Australia and it’s exciting to see these new diagnostic tools and interventions coming online,” Vicki Miller, Shake It Up Australia Foundation Chief Executive Officer [CEO], said.

Participants in a clinical trial of the app were able to utilise the gait re-training tool, which allowed users to set their own training time and pace before delivering a rhythmic metronomic beat for three different walking speeds related to movement.

Musicians, such as pianists, might rely on a metronome to help them keep time whilst playing, practicing and performing pieces of music. Similarly, those with Parkinson’s disease are assisted through the app which ties movement to a rhythmic pace.

Those with Parkinson’s disease can find walking to be a major challenge as the nerve cells deep in their brain responsible for planning and controlling body movement might lead to impaired movement. People with Parkinson’s often find their gait becomes impaired, their coordination decreases and step length can be severely affected.

Gait dysfunction could impact ones’ quality of life and independence, which leads to falls in around 70 percent of those with the condition. An estimated 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson’s disease — of which, approximately 150,000 are Australian.

Dr Brodie’s research was conducted at Neuroscience Research Australia’s state-of-the-art facilities in Sydney and direct comments and suggestions from people with Parkinson’s were essential for the app development.

“Those who live with Parkinson’s disease have to think about every single step they take. We asked them how much mental effort it takes for them to walk, and often they would say 100 percent,” Dr Brodie said.

“With the metronome beat of the app, the aim is to replace the need to think about walking and help with the timing of their steps. 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.”

“My goal in terms of my research is to have an impact now, not an impact in 10 years’ time. And I believe this app can help people with Parkinson’s disease all around the world right now,” he explained.

Of the 62 participants in the clinical trial and after analysis of self-reported feedback from those involved, it was found that those following the existing training method — the control group — were exercising for around 60 minutes per week, on average. However, those who used the ‘Walking Tall’ app were found to be training for 150 minutes — more than twice as much time, when compared to the control group.

“For someone with Parkinson’s disease whose goal might only to be [sic] able to walk to their letter box every day, that can really help them,” Dr Brodie added, having subsequently created a spin-off company: Walking Tall Health.

“We also give them audio encouragement in the app and you can even ‘earn’ a gold cup if you complete the training over a number of days — all of that is another motivator for people.”

Walking Tall Health Chief Science Officer Dr Martin Ostrowski lives with Parkinson’s disease, which led him to believe in the importance of listening and ensuring that assistance is simple for people to build trust and engage with support.

“We have seen that using this app for just a few minutes every day to retrain gait can make a big difference. The more people that try our app and then give feedback, the better we will make the next app version,” Dr Ostrowski said.

“Michael J Fox has said Parkinson’s is ‘the gift that keeps on taking,’ but I think an app like this empowers people living with Parkinson’s to have some control over helping themselves and realising they can still have a long and productive life.”