It's anticipated there will be 60,000 new cases of Parkinson's Disease diagnosed each year. It is the second-most common neurodegenerative disorder impacting aging baby boomers. Still, there's much to learn about the disease and how to treat it. Health reporter Erin Billups takes a look at one form of therapy offering hope to patients.
Motor dysfunction is a main characteristic of Parkinson's Disease, such as walking slowly, tremors and rigidity.
We watched as neurologist Milton Biagioni tested Joan Karron's gait. It is part of a study underway on a less-examined but also debilitating symptom of Parkinson's, visuospatial dysfunction, or problems with visual perception.
"These are very subtle, so patients do not notice that they have that, and includes problems with color discrimination, contrast sensitivity, the eye movements are affected," Biagioni said.
These vision problems can be dangerous, impacting fine motor skills and general movement, increasing the risk of falls, symptoms that lead to Karron's diagnosis.
"I fell a lot on my face, several times flat on my face, just tripped on the street and injured myself badly,” said Karron. "I thought one time I've broken my nose."
These days, though, Karron is getting around with greater confidence. She's on medication that helps slow progression of the disease, she takes private boxing lessons and, as part of a joint study with NYU Langone Health and the college's Steinhardt School, she's also brushing up on art.
"I have very bad small motor skills now. I can hardly write my name,” said Karron. “I was encouraged by them to use my big splashy art, which was so much more fun."
On top of biweekly group sessions, led by professional art therapists, study participants have their gait tested, undergo cognitive tests and brain imaging, and their eye tracking skills are assessed.
"We expect also that these eye movement function might be also improved because of the use they do during art creation," says Biagioni. "It is a very intense program, it is twice a week, 90 minutes, and they get homework."
In a preliminary study, Biagioni’s team saw improvement with computer tests, and also when patients were asked to walk and do simple math at the same time.
Another plus, Biagioni says, is that art therapy gives participants space to delve into their emotions surrounding their disability.
"This whole program has been empowering. It takes it out of the sickness realm,” said Karron. “There was a table and chairs and artwork."
The study is still enrolling participants. Biagioni hopes it eventually becomes a formalized therapy, helping Parkinson's patients live fuller, longer lives.
For more information about the research, contact the Fresco Institute at 646-501-4367 or email PDResearch@nyumc.org.