RETRAINING the brain of Parkinson’s sufferers can improve their symptoms, a breakthrough Welsh study has found.
Pioneering Cardiff University “neurofeedback” research has shown it has the potential to alter the course of symptoms and reduce the need for drugs early on in the disease. The research – chronicled in the Journal of Neuroscience – monitored the symptoms of patients experiencing early signs of Parkinson’s as they went through a process of regulating and re-training how their brains responded to certain activities and actions.
Real-time imaging – using MRI scanners – revealed how sufferers reacted to their own brain responses, and were fed back to the patient on a display screen. The study found that patients were then able to learn to alter activity in parts of their brain. Professor David Linden, who led the study, said that it was the first time the neurofeedback technique had been used in Parkinson’s research. He added: “Self-regulation of brain activity in humans based on real-time feedback is emerging as a powerful technique.
“In this study we assessed whether patients with Parkinson’s disease are able to alter their brain activity to improve their motor function”. “We found that the five patients who received neurofeedback 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.”
Self-regulation, using related techniques, has been used with other conditions – such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – but the Parkinson’s study is the first to explore the clinical potential for the technique, aside from a study on chronic pain. The disease was considered a suitable target for the technique – and an opportunity to show that its use could help patients with neurogenerative disorders. The study involved 10 patients, all with early stage Parkinson’s. They were divided into two groups – with half receiving brain feedback.
Professor Linden said: “Whilst this was a very small study, the key aim was to establish whether this technique may be feasible for sufferers. “The training resulted in clinically relevant improvement of motor functions – so assuming patients can learn to transfer the strategies used during neurofeedback into real-life settings, it might also become possible to sustain the clinical benefits.”
The scientists hope to test the method in formal clinical trials, to establish whether it holds promise for patients. Prof Linden added: “We have to be clear. This research won’t stop the progression of the disease nor should it offer sufferers false hope, but it does have the potential to alter the course of motor symptoms and possibly reduce drug requirements in early disease.” “This may have the effect of delaying more severe motor complications and improve the quality of life of patients affected by Parkinson’s disease.”
The research by Cardiff University’s MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics, and School of Psychology, was a collaboration between scientists and clinicians in Wales, London and the Netherlands.