November 2021

TEAM TREATING PARKINSON’S FOG WITH AI

The UltiGesture gait analysis device costs $10 and is highly portable. Photograph by Adrienne Berard.

An interdisciplinary research team from William & Mary is developing an innovative new treatment for the movement-related symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, which affects more than 10 million people worldwide. The treatment uses a combination of hardware and software to administer targeted vibrations in reaction to certain Parkinson’s symptoms, such as tremors and freezing of gait (FoG).

FoG episodes are frequently triggered by environmental and psychological factors, such as starting to walk, walking through tight quarters, changing directions, approaching a visual target, and dual tasking. Stressful, time-sensitive situations, such as entering an elevator before the doors begin to close, can also trigger a FoG event.

One piece of hardware being used in the research is the team’s UltiGesture. A quarter-size device that carries an accelerometer and gyroscope that collect data, which is transmitted to a smartphone via Bluetooth. Artificial intelligence (AI) is embedded in an app on the smartphone, which analyzes the data to detect a baseline gait and any abnormalities in it. Now that the team has validated the ability of the hardware and software to classify the various elements of an individual’s gait, the next phase in the research is to pair the UltiGesture system with a device that delivers localized vibrations to the ankle and foot to prompt movement in those experiencing trouble walking or stabilizing themselves. For this, the team will use the VibeForward, a small piece of hardware developed by Resonate Forward.

Together, the UltiGesture and VibeForward device will eventually be able to sense the slightest hint of FoG in a patient’s walk and trigger the ankle device to vibrate—within a second—to help the wearer stay in motion as usual.

“We’re hoping that using vibration in this new way will show better results and give people some hope, a little more autonomy, freedom, and a better quality of life,” said research team member Ingrid Pretzer-Aboff, PhD, RN, FGSA, associate professor and senior nurse researcher at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, who has studied vibration therapy in Parkinson’s patients for more than a decade.

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