Brussels, 31 October 2006
Parkinson's Disease (PD) is a debilitating disease afflicting 1 in 500 Europeans, making it the second most common disease after Alzheimer's, according to the EU-funded project ParkService. PD not only affects a person's physical health, but can impact emotional well-being as well. PD influences a patient's ability to control muscle activity, affecting mobility and speech function. With a patient's ability to communicate severely compromised, they can fall victim to certain forms of social exclusion. The ParkService initiative, funded through the European Commission's eTEN programme, is attempting to change that.
ParkService is developing a set of tools designed to help PD sufferers manage their symptoms, such as temporary or permanent paralysis. In the course of their research, they have discovered that patients positively respond to visual cues placed in their field of view helping them to move about normally.
For instance, researchers laid out a trail of white pieces of paper for a patient to follow. They observed that he was able to confidently stride along the trail only to resume the shuffling associated with PD once the trail ends. The physiological mechanisms behind the observed phenomenon are not clear to researchers, but they have been able to use current technology to exploit their findings.
ParkService is developing a set of virtual reality glasses patients can wear, called INDIGO, that provide similar visual cues digitally as he or she walks down the street. INDIGO is the core of a range of products developed by ParkService to help PD patients communicate with their doctors and others.
"A monitor in the glasses puts moving stripes in the person's peripheral vision, providing that helpful visual cue," says Reynold Greenlaw from UK-based Oxford Computer Consultants Ltd., coordinator of the eTEN co-funded ParkService project.
An INDIGO prototype won the European Commission's Assistive Technology Award in November 2004. The concept was originally the product of an earlier IST-sponsored project, PARREHA, which lead to the establishment of ParkAid, a joint company now leading the ParkService consortium.
ParkLine, another tool being developed under the project, allows users to communicate with doctors and other PD sufferers via their television. They would be able type in symptom diaries using the remote control or send video from a webcam.
An individual INDIGO system is expected to cost around €2000. The consortium is currently in the process of investigating ways patients can have the cost reimbursed. It is expected to hit the market in early 2007.
"In Germany private-health insurance and patient organisations may pay for it. In the UK we will try to get backing from the National Health Service, and in Italy, patient organisations will pay," explains Greenlaw.
"For now, our objective is to use feedback from the ParkService pilots to fine-tune the tools. Then, our next step is to get them into people's homes and doctors' offices in larger numbers," says Greenlaw.