Tag Archives: parkinsons disease

Eye-Tracking Device Gives People with Disabilities Affordable Control

Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy, amputations, and spinal cord injuries rob millions of people of the ability to interact with their surroundings. Computer usage can be a near impossibility, as these diseases and injuries typically affect mobility and the use of the arms and hands greatly. Good news is on the way, as a device that costs under $65 may provide this group of people with the ability to control their computers and interact with their surroundings using only their eyes.

IOP Publishing’s Journal of Neural Engineering showcased the new technology that is made of an eye-tracking device and “smart” software that allows the eye to act as a mouse, providing users with the ability to move a cursor on the screen.

The device, which was developed by researchers at the Imperial College in London, is known as the GT3D device. The reason it is so affordable is because it is made with off-the-shelf items that you wouldn’t expect to see in such a high tech gadget. The device uses two fast video game console cameras that cost around $30 each. These cameras are attached outside of the line of vision to a pair of $5 glasses.

GT3D Eye Tracking Mouse Controller Glasses

The cameras take a continual stream of photos that are used to determine where the pupil of the eye is directed. The researchers then used calibrations to work out where the person was looking on the screen. The researchers also utilized more precise calibrations to figure out a 3D gaze. With this information, they were able to determine how far into the distance the person was looking.

Another added bonus to this new device is that it’s solved what has been considered the “Midas touch problem.” In short, users could move a mouse arrow around a screen, but could not click on any icons easily. In past devices, users had to stare at icons or blink, and the results were less than accurate. With the GT3D device, users wink to click. Being that a wink is a voluntary action, unlike staring or blinking, it is considerably more timely and accurate.

Control a Computer with Your Eyes with GT3D Glasses

The researchers had study subjects play Pong without using hand controllers of any kind to see how quickly they learned to control the game paddles. Dr. Aldo Faisal, Lecturer in Neurotechnology at Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering and the Department of Computing, noted that six of the trial users had never used their eyes to control input previously, and scored within 20 percent of able bodied users after an impressively short 10 minutes of playtime.

According to Dr. Faisal, “Crucially, we have achieved two things: we have built a 3D eye-tracking system hundreds of times cheaper than commercial systems and used it to build a real-time brain machine interface that allows patients to interact more smoothly and more quickly than existing invasive technologies that are tens of thousands of times more expensive. This is frugal innovation; developing smarter software and piggy-backing existing hardware to create devices that can help people worldwide independent of their healthcare circumstances.”

And if you thought the GT3D was already incredibly affordable, this extra good news is really going to blow your mind! According to Dr. Faisal, “We originally created the device for £39.80 ($64) but recent falls in the price of video game console cameras mean we could now actually make the same device for about £20 ($32).” That’s exciting news, indeed!


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Sleep Disorder’s Risk Factors, Link to Parkinson’s Defined

Sharing a bed with a partner that kicks or punches in their sleep is no laughing matter. What was previously thought of as just restless sleeping may actually be REM sleep behavior disorder, or RBD, an extremely rare sleep disorder that may be a precursor to other neurological diseases. A new study published in the journal Neurology has identified environmental risk factors for RBD.

“Until now, we didn’t know much about the risk factors for this disorder, except that it was more common in men and in older people,” explained study author Dr. Ronald B. Postuma of McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. “We wanted to investigate whether the risk factors for REM sleep behavior disorder were similar to those for Parkinson’s disease or dementia.”

According to the American Academy of Neurology, an estimated 0.5% off all adults worldwide have REM sleep behavior disorder. Of those with RBD, over half develop neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s. This is a small portion of the 25-30% of adults, teens, and children that are affected by sleep disorders.

RBD Sleep Disorder Link to Neurodegenerative Diseases

When a person without RBD is in REM sleep, their muscles are in a state of atonia, or paralysis. People with RBD are a danger to sleep partners, as they move their arms and legs while in this dream stage of sleep. The movement of the body can be random or in synch with the dream.

The new study looked at data from 13 institutions in 10 different countries, which included 347 RBD sufferers and 347 control subjects, matched by age and sex, making it the largest RBD study to date. The purpose of the study was to identify environmental risk factors for RBD, such as smoking, pesticide exposure, farming, low levels of education, and head injuries.

“One of the most intriguing aspects of this work is the picture of similarities and differences among risk factors for RBD and Parkinson’s disease,” wrote Stanford University neurologists doctors, Shannon Sullivan and Christian Guilleminault, and Dr. Carlos Schenck, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota. “While pesticide exposure appears to be a risk factor for both disorders, smoking, for example, which is protective for PD, is a risk factor for RBD.”

The study authors feel that the findings that resulted from this study should open up new areas for research into treatments and preventative measures for RBD.


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Parkinson’s Disease Gene Found by Studying Saskatchewan Mennonite Family

A team of international scientists from the University of Saskatchewan-Saskatoon Health Region and University of British Columbia, led by genetics profession Matthew Farrer, identified an abnormal gene which leads to Parkinson’s disease, thanks in large part to the help of one extended Saskatchewan Mennonite family.

The abnormal gene is a mutated version of a gene called DNAJC13, which was identified by UBC medical genetics professor Matt Farrer, who led the study. Thirteen of 57 members of one extended family in the study had been previously diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Three additional cases from Saskatchewan and one family from British Columbia all were found to have the same mutation. All of the people with the mutation were of Mennonite background, a Christian group linked to Dutch-German-Russian ancestry.

Saskatchewan Parkinsons Researcher Matthew Farrer

“This discovery paves the way for further research to determine the nature of brain abnormalities which this gene defect produces,” says Farrer’s research collaborator, Dr. Ali Rajput. “It also promises to help us find ways to detect Parkinson’s disease early, and to develop drugs which will one day halt the progression of the disease.”

Rajput is a leader in Parkinson’s research and has been working with the main family from the USB study since 1983. Rajput and his son, Alex Rajput, who is also a neurologist, have been collaborating with Farrer for quite some time. The research for the study drew on four decades of research and work the Rajputs have completed.

Saskatchewan Parkinsons Researchers Ali Rajput and Alex Rajput

The key contribution in the findings, which were presented to more than 5,000 delegates at the 16th International Congress of Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders in Dublin, Ireland, was the Rajputs’ collection of more than 500 brains and nearly 2,200 blood samples from Parkinson’s patients.

Farrer, who holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Neurogenetics and Translational Neuroscience, explained that confirming the gene’s linkage with Parkinson’s disease required thousands of DNA samples from patients with the disease and healthy individuals. The contributions of the Saskatchewan Mennonite family were critical in the research.

Saskatchewan Mennonite Family Help Parkinsons Research

“A breakthrough like this would not be possible without their involvement and support. They gave up considerable time, contributed clinical information, donated blood samples, participated in PET imaging studies, and — on more than one occasion following the death of a family member — donated brain samples,” says Farrer.

“The whole-hearted and unselfish commitment of this family is remarkable,” Rajput says. “They went out of their way in every conceivable manner to help solve this mystery. We, on behalf of all the Parkinson’s disease patients in this province, Canada, and around the world, are grateful to them for making this discovery possible.”

Parkinson’s is the second most common neurodegenerative disease, with estimates around one million people in North America and four million people worldwide being affected by it, and most cases occurring over the age of 50. Environmental toxins, such as pesticides and herbicides, have been consistently shown to be a major factor in contracting the disease.


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Michael J. Fox on Problems with Stem Cells and Parkinson’s Research

Parkinson's stars Muhammed Ali and Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox, who helped champion the stem cell research era, recently sat down for an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. Sitting along side Deborah Brooks, co-founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, Fox admitted there have been “problems along the way.” He stated that he still believes in stem cell research and the need for government support for stem cell studies, but that the Parkinson’s cure may lie in drug therapies, surgeries, and earlier diagnosis of the disease.

Michael J. Fox talks stem cells and Parkinson's research with Diane Sawyer

Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the brain that affects 0.4% of people in industrialized countries. One percent of all people over the age of 60, and four percent of people over 80 suffer from the disease which causes shaking, difficulty walking, lack of coordination, anxiety, confusion, depression, and memory loss.

Extensive research into the benefit of stem cells for Parkinson’s disease has been conducted, much of which has been supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation. The foundation, according to Reuters, is collaborating with the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi to test an experimental drug treatment for the disease. Fox still supports research using stem cells, however.

Michael J. Fox talks stem cells and Parkinson's research

“Stem cells are an avenue of research that we’ve pursued and continue to pursue, but it’s part of a broad portfolio of things that we look at. There have been some issues with stem cells, some problems along the way,” said Fox. “It’s not so much that [stem cell research has] diminished in its prospects for breakthroughs, as much as it’s the other avenues of research have grown and multiplied and become as much or more promising. So, an answer may come from stem cell research but it’s more than likely to come from another area.”

Deborah Brooks and Michael J. Fox talk stem cells and Parkinson's research

The collaboration with Sanofi has resulted in the Michael J. Fox foundation sponsoring a phase I clinical trial of the drug AVE8112. This drug has shown promise for helping patients’ psychiatric symptoms. The patient enrollment period is expected to begin in late 2012.

Please visit the ClinicalTrials.gov search results page at www.clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/results?term=parkinsons to learn more about current and future clinical trials being held for Parkinson’s research.


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Can Tap Water Cause Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS)?

an example of cyanobacteria in a pond

Over the past decade, scientists have focused on finding genetic causes for neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Since genetics have yet to explain many cases of these diseases, however, researchers have turned to exposing possible environmental causes. One example of a possible link has been found by biologist Sandra Banack and botanist Paul Cox, senior scientist and founder, respectively, at the Institute for EthnoMedicine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They are researching a possible link between ALS and drinking water contaminated with a bacteria produced by microbes called cyanobacteria.

scientist Sandra Banack

Banack and Cox were studying cycads–ancient seed-bearing plants that resemble palms–and fruit bats in Guam when they stumbled onto a tiny toxic molecule called beta-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA). BMAA is produced by cyanobacteria, not just in Guam, but worldwide. In further research, the scientists discovered an accumulation of BMAA in the brains of people who had died from ALS, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. BMAA accumulation was not found in the brains of people who had died from other causes. This raised two questions: Is BMAA accumulation the cause of these diseases, and how did the toxin end up in these individuals’ brains in the first place?

Researcher Paul Cox - Tap Water ALS

Cox and Banack theorized that prolonged chronic exposure to BMAA from consuming food, drinking water, or swimming in water contaminated with cyanobacteria could trigger these neurodegenerative diseases. Cox suspected that BMAA accumulation in the brain creates a neurotoxic reservoir that eventually attacks the nervous system. He also suspected a genetic factor, since not everyone exposed falls ill.

Cox’s and Banack’s hypothesis drew criticism and skepticism from some researchers, some of whom conducted their own studies to determine if there was actually a link between ALS and BMAA. Not all the studies found evidence of a link. Researchers theorize that people should normally be able to metabolize small amounts of BMAA. Those who cannot may accumulate it in nerve cells, and this accumulation could lead to ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases. Currently, clinical trials are determining if BMAA can be removed from the body using a zinc-based drug, thus slowing the progression of ALS–and giving hope to ALS sufferers.

 example of cyanobacteria

What is alarming is that the prevalence of cyanobacteria–some contaminated with BMAA–is increasing worldwide. A study conducted at the University of Miami showed extremely high levels of BMAA levels in blue crabs, pink shrimp, and other bottom-feeding species off Florida’s coast, where there is a massive cyanobacterial bloom. Some of these species are eaten by humans. Researchers have also found BMAA in the brains of dolphins and in the fins of certain shark species. BMAA has even been found in Baltic Sea aquatic life by European researchers.

“As the dose goes up, our data suggests that incidence [of ALS] also goes up,” says Cox. “If people are consuming a BMAA-rich diet, there’s more chance they are going to fall ill. People need to be very careful about the water they’re drinking.”

 pond with cyanobacteria

Currently no water facilities test for BMAA. In a 2005 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cox and his colleagues suggested BMAA monitoring of cyanobacteria-contaminated drinking water. Researchers have developed an antibody that could be used in a simple dipstick-type water test, as well as a filter to remove the compound. Paul Cox hopes that companies will start implementing these technologies. His colleague Sandra Banack adds, “If we’re right, we can stop these diseases — and that’s huge. We can get BMAA out of people’s bodies, and out of their diets. There’s a lot of potential for good.”


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