‘Walking to a beat could help relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease’, the Daily Mail has reported.
In reality, this story is based on research that examined how the walking style of 15 healthy people changed in the presence of different types of rhythm. It did not study Parkinson’s disease, or Parkinson’s-like symptoms. The researchers were particularly interested in what is known as ‘gait’ – a combination of physical movement, balance and co-ordination we employ when walking.
They found that, compared to walking with no external beat, when the participants walked while listening to a regular rhythm through headphones, their stride became more regular and aligned to the beat.
Not all of the changes to gait were positive, however. When listening to a regular beat, some components, including steadiness, became worse.
The researchers also wanted to see if other types of rhythmic cues, such as a blinking light or a regular vibration, could have an effect on gait, but no significant effect (either positive or negative) was detected.
The researchers suggest that their findings may be useful for future physical rehabilitation practices, however, until further research is done, this remains speculation.
As this experiment was carried out in a small number of young, healthy subjects who were unaffected by Parkinson’s disease, it’s direct impact for people with Parkinson’s is unclear.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the Universities of Pittsburgh, Toronto, British Columbia and Cambridge, and was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Public Library of Science ONE (PLoS ONE).
The headline surrounding this research appears to come from a press release based on an interview with the lead researcher and not the contents of the publication.
This is a deeply technical piece of research, which makes use of some highly specialised mathematical and engineering terminology, which makes for an extremely ‘hard to understand’ news story.
While the Daily Mail’s overall reporting is reasonably accurate, the headline is misleading, as the research was conducted in healthy participants and not in Parkinson’s disease patients.
However, the paper correctly says that the manner in which gait is influenced by hearing a regular beat is of interest for rehabilitation of patients with neurological conditions.
What kind of research was this?
This was a small study that examined how different types of rhythmic stimulus (visual, auditory and tactile) influence the timing of the way people walk.
The researchers thought that walking in time to these cues would negatively impact on various components of walking, for instance, by interfering with the ability to maintain a natural gait and stability.
This research was carried out in 15 healthy young adults, which makes it difficult to generalise the results to a wider population, or to a set of older patients with a specific condition such as Parkinson’s disease (most people first develop the symptoms of Parkinson’s around the age of 60).
A reduced ability to control movement is one of the impairments found in people with Parkinson’s and, aside from the disruption to day-to-day activities, presents a risk to health (such as increased risks of falls). So further research, based on how different cues (visual, sonic and sensory, such as vibrations) can affect gait certainly seems to be warranted.
At this stage it is impossible to predict whether the results of the experiment in healthy people would also apply to people with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
What did the research involve?
The researchers recruited 15 healthy adults with an average age of about 24 years. They conducted the experiment over two sessions, each consisting of five 15-minute trials. During the first trial (the control), the participants were asked to walk at their normal speed around an indoor path for 15 minutes. The researchers measured the participants’ average number of steps per minute, and used this pace as a comparator for the later sessions.
During the next four trials, the participants repeated the 15 minute walk, but this time did so while listening to a regular rhythm through a pair of headphones, seeing a light blinking at regular intervals, feeling a vibration at regular intervals, or a combination of all three rhythmic cues at the same time. The researchers measured various components of their gait, including:
- mean stride interval – the average amount of time it takes to complete one step cycle (stepping with the right foot, left foot, then right foot again)
- stride interval variability – the differences in the amount of time it takes to complete a step cycle
- other parameters which measure gait steadiness and stability
They then compared these components to the control walk that the participants had completed during the first trial, and assessed how different rhythmic cues influenced the participants’ walks.
What were the basic results?
The researchers found that speed and the average time the participants took to complete a step cycle were not significantly different across the five conditions.
The stride interval variability was significantly lower when the participants were walking while hearing a beat, but not while they saw or felt the beat. That is, the amount of time it took to complete one cycle of steps became more regular when listening to a regular rhythm, and aligned with the auditory beat. Participants’ gaits also became more unsteady when listening to a beat, but not when ‘seeing’ or ‘feeling’ a beat.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers say that all three cue types (audio, visual and tactile) altered one or more components of walking, but auditory cues had the biggest impact on the participants’ natural walking rhythms, and that it can be difficult to maintain our normal walking rhythm in the presence of a different beat.
This research confirms some things that we may notice in our everyday life, such as when walking and listening to a regular beat, our steps align with that beat and become more regular.
The researchers say that listening to a rhythm may override our internal clock, and thus have a stronger influence on gait than other types of cues. They say that since visual cues did not appear to decrease steadiness, it may be useful in rehabilitation services.
They suggest that this may be because the participants were focusing on the regularly blinking light, and ignoring other visual cues in the environment which may otherwise cause unsteadiness.
While this was a well-conducted study, the suggestions that the results could lead to an improvement in rehabilitation efforts for people affected by conditions such as Parkinson’s are premature. This research was not conducted in people with the condition, or in people at an age likely to develop it, so further work will be needed to confirm this suggestion.
In the meantime, the practical applications of rhythm and human movement remain in the realm of Strictly Come Dancing or Couch to 5K.