Brussels, 25 Feb 2005
Around one in twenty people that are currently paralysed as a result of Parkinson's disease could walk again, thanks to a device developed during an EU funded Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) project.
Currently, there are around 700,000 Parkinson's sufferers in the European Union, and that number is expected to rise as the general population ages. The condition is caused by the loss of dopamine-producing cells that transmit signals within the brain, leaving victims unable to direct or control their movements in the normal manner. This is the reason why many people with Parkinson's have difficulty walking in conditions that would normally present no problem.
The PARREHA (Parkinson's rehabilitation) project was established with a 1.68 million euro grant from the Information Society Technologies programme of FP5. It aimed to take advantage of a little understood phenomenon known as kinesia paradoxa, whereby some immobile Parkinson's sufferers are actually able to walk normally when visual 'obstructions' - sometimes as simple as pieces of paper on the floor - are placed in their way.
Armed with this knowledge, the eight project partners within PARREHA used virtual reality technology to develop a headset that enables the wearer to see similar visual obstacles wherever they look, as well as their actual surroundings.
As project coordinator Reynold Greenlaw, from Oxford Computer Consultants, explains: 'This type of lightweight, wearable headset has a display that is very small and looks like a normal pair of glasses. [It] enables a number of people with Parkinson's to move freely and more safely in their normal environment.'
With the collaboration of another consortium member, Europark - a pan-European organisation of Parkinson's sufferers - the team worked with patients to demonstrate the effectiveness of the device. After trying initially to walk unaided in a bare corridor, users then put on the virtual reality glasses. Through these they were able to see the corridor, as well as a series of brightly coloured stripes that scrolled slowly towards them as if they were walking down a tunnel.
'Working with the Parkinson's group, Europark, we showed this device was highly effective for a certain group of people with Parkinson's,' confirmed Dr Greenlaw. 'It has an enormous effect on their quality of life and does not rely on any drugs or surgery.'
Following the conclusion of the project in 2003, the five small and medium sized engineering companies that were part of the consortium established a company called ParkAid, based in Italy, to work with manufacturers of wearable computer displays to develop the technology.
The latest prototype is currently undergoing a two year clinical trial at the Institute of Neurology in the UK, and the partners hope that the equipment will soon be certified. Although an exact price for the device has not yet been confirmed, the partners hope that the full package, including headset, PDA and software, will be available for around 2,000 euro.
The UK national contact point for the IST programme, Peter Walters, commented: 'This is another example of how information society technology is being developed, with the help of EU framework programme funding, into applications that reach way beyond what are considered the normal boundaries of computer buffs.'
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