NeuRA Magazine #31


Most of us take walking for granted. But for people living with Parkinson’s disease, one of the first and most devastating disruptions to their lives
is that they lose their ability to walk naturally.

The disease can cause people to freeze mid walk. Known by the medical term ‘freezing of gait,’ this condition causes sudden episodes where someone cannot move their feet forward despite their intention to walk.

Larissa with her family

People with Parkinson’s often describe this as if their feet are suddenly glued to the floor. These episodes are particularly dangerous as the rest of the body continues with its momentum, which can lead to people falling suddenly.

Larissa Richards remembers vividly one of the first times she experienced this. Aged in her forties, the mother of two was recently diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s disease.

“I remember trying to get on a bus to come home from work. The door opened and I went to step up, but I was frozen. My head knew what to do, but my body just wouldn’t co-

operate. The driver and I just stared at each other,” she said.

Freezing of gait can be so challenging to deal with, that people with Parkinson’s are often fearful of leaving the house, and can become socially isolated.

NeuRA’s Falls Balance and Injury Research Centre is exploring how technology embedded in everyday clothes assists people with reduced mobility.

The team, led by Dr Matthew Brodie and Associate Professor Kim Delbaere, have invented and are testing prototypes of these clothes, known as ‘smart garments.’

Larissa trialling the smart socks at NeuRA with Dr Matthew Brodie

For example, to help with freezing of gait, the team is working in collaboration with Sensoria Health to develop and test smart socks that vibrate at regular intervals to stimulate the feet to encourage walking.

This year, Larissa visited NeuRA to see one of these prototypes in action. She tested a pair of smart socks and experienced a reduction in the mental effort required to take each step.

“They not only made me feel better, they actually made me move better,” she said.

Dr Brodie said one of the biggest motivations for developing these smart garments is seeing the potential they could have.

“What we’ve done is create a beat or rhythm that encourages the muscles to keep on making continuous movements. Our pilot studies reduced the worry people had about freezing of gait,” he said.

One of NeuRA’s goals is to reduce the number and severity of falls among people living with Parkinson’s disease. About 100,000 people in Australia have Parkinson’s disease and an estimated 60% suffer from a fall each year.

The ideas have been developed, but before these laboratory prototypes can become a reality, NeuRA needs to conduct a clinical trial involving at least 100 people living with Parkinson’s disease to provide the evidence.

If you are interested in supporting this work, please contact the team at



See what’s going on at NeuRA


Cortical activity during balance tasks in ageing and clinical groups using functional near-infrared spectroscopy

Prof Stephen Lord, Dr Jasmine Menant Walking is not automatic and requires attention and brain processing to maintain balance and prevent falling over. Brain structure and function deteriorate with ageing and neurodegenerative disorders, in turn impacting both cognitive and motor functions.   This series of studies will investigate: How do age and/or disease- associated declines in cognitive functions affect balance control? How is this further impacted by psychological, physiological and medical factors (eg. fear, pain, medications)? How does the brain control these balance tasks?     Approach The experiments involve experimental paradigms that challenge cognitive functions of interest (eg.visuo-spatial working memory, inhibitory function). I use functional near-infrared spectroscopy to study activation in superficial cortical regions of interest (eg. prefrontal cortex, supplementary motor area…). The studies involve young and older people as well as clinical groups (eg.Parkinson’s disease).   Studies Cortical activity during stepping and gait adaptability tasks Effects of age, posture and task condition on cortical activity during reaction time tasks Influence of balance challenge and concern about falling on brain activity during walking Influence of lower limb pain/discomfort on brain activity during stepping   This research will greatly improve our understanding of the interactions between brain capacity, functions and balance control across ageing and diseases, psychological, physiological and medical factors, allows to identify targets for rehabilitation. It will also help identifying whether exercise-based interventions improve neural efficiency for enhanced balance control.