Cerebellar ataxia | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - December 2002

Cerebellar ataxia

For some people everyday tasks like these are enormously challenging because they have difficulty co-ordinating their movement and balance.

Action Medical Researchers are investigating how much of this difficulty is due to the fact that such patients cannot move their eyes to look accurately at the place where they want to step. The team, based at the University of Bristol, in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University, is enjoying some encouraging results.

Their techniques have improved the performance of patients with movement disorders in a way that has never been done before. It has already boosted the performance of patients with the brain disorder cerebellar ataxia, and the team now hopes the techniques can be extended to help some of the 100,000 people living with Parkinson’s disease in the UK.

Twenty cerebellar patients have taken part in the research so far, during which they were asked to walk along a computer controlled walkway with 18 irregularly placed ‘stepping stones’, which required precise foot placement at each step.

After doing this a few times the patients were asked to concentrate on looking where they wanted to step, and rehearse a series of intended steps by eye movement alone whilst standing stationary at the beginning of the walkway.

When they repeated the walk, both their eye movements and their stepping were dramatically improved.

The team is thrilled with the research so far, and the impact it could potentially have. Leading the study Dr Dilwyn Marple-Horvat, Reader in Motor Control at Manchester Metropolitan University, had the work published in the medical journal Experimental Brain Research.

In the paper he explains: “For example, if a patient wished to cross a room cluttered with obstacles, such as children’s toys scattered on the floor, simple prior rehearsal of the intended steps by eye movements alone might well result in a big enough improvement in performance to allow the patient to complete the task with much greater ease and safety.”

The research team, which recently presented its work at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Florida, says ^the straightforward and non-invasive strategy has great potential for patients^ who undertake everyday tasks that demand visual guidance. This could include people diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and Parkinson’s disease, who also make inaccurate eye movements.

To help them further their promising research, Action Medical Research has agreed to extend the study for a further two years, bringing the Charity’s total support for the project to over £150,000.

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