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New hope for Parkinson's therapy following research by Cardiff University.

November 9, 2011 1:15 PM

A new technique could improve the quality of life for patients with Parkinson's Disease, according to research led by Cardiff University. Patients with the early stages of the disease were trained to control areas of the brain associated with movement by using the power of thought alone. A clinical evaluation later found their movement had improved by up to a third. The charity Parkinson's UK described the research as "exciting" but stressed "these are very early days".

The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, involved ten patients with the disease that affects the brain and results in slow movements and a tremor. Five patients received the brain regulation feedback technique and five acted as a control.

Patients undergoing the training were placed in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner in Bangor, Gwynedd. At first, they were asked to squeeze a hand as the team mapped the regions of the brain responsible for controlling movement. Then, in real time, the subjects were shown the level of activity in these regions displayed on a gauge above them. They were asked to imagine making complex movements in order to activate the brain centres, and saw a corresponding increase on the gauge. With practice, they were able to increase and decrease the level of activity at will, through thought alone.

Prof David Linden from Cardiff University, who led the research, described the process as "real-time neural feedback". "Self-regulation of brain activity in humans based on real-time feedback is emerging as a powerful technique," said Prof Linden. "In this study we assessed whether patients with Parkinson's disease are able to alter their brain activity to improve their motor function. We wanted them to activate the brain regions associated with movement through the force of their mind," he explained.

Diagram from Cardiff University showing the principle of feedback in the research
Patients experienced a feedback effect as they learnt to control motion centres in their brain

The professor stressed that the technique did not offer a cure but he said that improved function could lead to a better quality of life. "We found that the five patients who received neuro feedback were able to increase activity in brain networks important for movements and that this intervention resulted in an overall improvement in motor speed - in this case, finger tapping," said Prof Linden. "The training resulted in clinically relevant improvement of motor functions - so assuming patients can learn to transfer the strategies used during neuro feedback into real-life settings, it might also become possible to sustain the clinical benefits," he added.

The research team said the study was a small scale proof of principle and they now hope to stage a larger, randomised, clinical trial.

Claire Bale, senior research communications officer at Parkinson's UK, said: "This study showed that people with Parkinson's were able to alter their own brain activity to improve their movement symptoms using neurofeedback from brain scans. This highlights the amazing ability of the brain to change and adapt. While these results are exciting, these are very early days. We need much larger, in-depth studies to help us understand the potential these techniques may have to tackle some of the symptoms of Parkinson's," said Ms Bale.

The research into Parkinson's disease was the result of a collaboration between Cardiff University and scientists and doctors from north Wales, London and the Netherlands.

Prof Linden has also carried out a pilot trial using the neuro feedback technique on patients suffering with depression. The findings of that study are yet to be published.