OHSU lab needs volunteers

If you have Parkinson’s, MS – or not – balance lab would like to have your help

Dr. Fay Horak (left) helps balance lab study participant Peter Miller, through an exercise.

Credit: Courtesy photo
Dr. Fay Horak (left) helps balance lab study participant Peter Miller, through an exercise.

Fay Horak was studying physical therapy at the University of Wisconsin when her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died suddenly at the age of 42.

Horak still had three younger brothers at home and would come home every weekend to help her father with laundry, cleaning and meal preparation for the week.

That experience affected her so profoundly that she changed her medical pursuits to neurology, and now works as a professor at OHSU’s Parkinson’s Center of Oregon.

“I like to translate new science to improve the lives of people with disabilities,” she says. “My mother’s death led me to my interest in the brain. I wanted to know the reason this happened to her. In this field, you are always learning something new.”

Of note

The Balance Disorders Lab studies other“movement disorders,” including fatigue in MS sufferers, that could lead to new drugs or exercises, Dr. Fay Horak says. Studies with objective measures help develop bio-markers that result in more efficient, less ex-pensive clinical trials. To be a volunteer in a research study, contact Graham Harker at 503-418-2601, or balance@ohsu.edu. Studies require the ability to balance and walk, and include Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, as well as those without a dis-ease. You must be at least age 50.

Her current research focuses on the effects of exercise and education on Parkinson’s, but the center also seeks to find ways to improve the lives of those with multiple sclerosis and aging. The object is to understand how exercise and education affect balance, gait and cognitive function in individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

“Improving mobility is characteristic of quality of life and people who donate their time for science contribute to new discoveries,” she says of their needs for volunteers.

The lab is seeking individuals with Parkinson’s disease and its variations. It also needs volunteers who don’t have the disease. The six-week program involves exercise three times a week, followed by a weekly education class for six weeks. There are three test periods where balance, gait and cognition, and brain imaging are assessed.

The “boot camp” exercises will include boxing, tai chi, obstacle courses, aerobic or dance, and walking and talking.

Participants receive $25 per testing session and $5 for each class attended. Healthy individuals, ages 65 to 95, will received $25 per testing session.

Horak says imaging of the brain allows researchers to study circulation of the brain and how circuits come together or overlap. Researchers use a special MRI machine made for scientific research.

“They look at the thickness and connecting pathways, to see if they talk to each other,” Horak says. “We study what changes in the brain are related to age and what are related to Parkinson’s.”

In addition to imaging, sensors study body motion doing tasks such as walking, turning, stepping over obstacles and other challenges.

Cognition research involves thinking skills on the computer and on paper. Among the many unknowns is whether cognitive changes are associated with balance or if exercise improves balance and thinking skills, and how changes in the brain occur with exercise, Horak says. It’s also unknown which specific exercises might improve balance or cognition.

Working with volunteers gives researchers an opportunity to meet interesting people. One was Andy Grove, CEO and chairman of Intel, who suffered with Parkinson’s disease. He felt he benefitted from his involvement in the research, donated money toward research, and encouraged Horak to start APDM, a small company that makes sensors to monitor movement.

“He took our advice about exercise and built an exercise room in his house and hired a trainer and was able to continue walking until his death this year,” Horak says. “I watched him do amazing exercises.”

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