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Research Highlight: Treadport Project

Treating Parkinson's Disease through a virtual reality environment.

The University of Utah is committed to developing cutting-edge technology to enhance the human condition on local, national, and global scales. Our research community continues to push the limits of innovation through highly competitive and interdisciplinary research efforts. Primary investigators on the Treadport Project, Associate Professors K. Bo Foreman, PhD; Andrew Merryweather, PhD; Mark Minor, PhD; and Professor John Hollerbach, PhD, are no exceptions to that objective. We asked these research pioneers to tell us a little more about their ground-breaking project, and how cross-campus collaboration is essential to produce multi-faceted research.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Treadport Project, and how the intersection of the virtual reality environment and Parkinson’s disease treatment came to be?

Parkinson Disease (PD) is a progressive disease, affecting more than 1 million people in the US.  Cardinal signs include slowness of movements (bradykinesia), rigidity, and tremor. Because of the disease, individuals also typically report increased falling accidents—with 45 to 68% of the population with PD reporting annual falling accidents.  Typical treatments include Dopamine replacement as well as strength and mobility training, or rehabilitation.  One of the challenges of training individuals with PD is to create an environment that not only challenges their gait and balance, but also reflects everyday mobility challenges, adapts to their performance to maximize the training benefit, and ensures safety of the individual.  

To accomplish this, we used a structured interview approach to collect data on what individuals with PD found challenging in everyday life, and then incorporated those results into virtual reality environments (VR). More specifically, we used a “Cave Automatic Virtual Environment” (CAVE) system known as the “Treadport.”  This system was designed and built at the University of Utah, and provides wrap-around 3D visual display, floor projection, a speed matching treadmill, and safety harness. The Treadport is made up of a 6x10 foot speed matching treadmill, three 8x8 foot rear projection screens, and a seven camera Vicon motion capture systems. Individuals participated in a Treadport training program, (3 sessions of 30 minutes each week over the course of 6 weeks,) and utilized three different virtual reality environments.  The use of the CAVE system as a rehabilitation tool resulted in significant improvements in mobility and obstacle negotiation in people with PD.

This project was the culmination of interests from multiple researchers and departments at the University of Utah including; Physical Therapy and Athletic Training (Foreman), Mechanical Engineering (Minor and Merryweather), and School of Computing (Hollerbach).  We combined our ideas and knowledge to address training issues that affect individuals with Parkinson disease. 

Bo, what is the vision of your work as a researcher and scientist, and how did you become interested in collaborating with researchers outside your field?

I am specifically interested in investigating the changes in kinetic and kinematic variables that result from clinical interventions and/or disease progression.  Because of my research interests as a bio-mechanist and my clinical interests as a physical therapist, working with this team of engineers was a perfect match. I became interested in the idea of virtual reality in research through collaboration with these colleagues in mechanical engineering and the school of computing.

How has your research scope changed or expanded during your residence at the University of Utah?

My residency at the University of Utah has expanded my interest and heightened by curiosity in using more advanced methods to treat specific limitations in various populations.  For example, many previous studies have looked at using traditional exercise as a method for combating mobility decline in individuals with PD.  In this study, we used advanced VR methodologies to successfully address these declines. As a team, we are looking for technologies, device enhancements, and innovative methods to improve the mobility, safety, and rehabilitation in other mobility-impaired patient populations.

Did the Treadport Project receive any University of Utah sponsored funding? If so, how has that funding helped fueled your vision as a researcher and a scientist?

Yes, the University of Utah provided a portion of the funding for the equipment used in this study.  Their investment in the lab that I direct (the Motion Capture Facility) has given me the tools necessary to bring this research to fruition.  The National Science Foundation provided the majority of the funding for the other aspects of this project.

What do you hope to accomplish in your future research?

As a group, we are currently working on incorporating a Smart Shoe (robotic shoe) into the VR environment to provide a realistic ground terrain to go along with the floor projection of the VR environment.  For example, if individuals are walking on gravel, the shoes will mimic the feeling of gravel under their feet even though the participant is walking on a flat treadmill belt. 

The “Treadport” project was presented to the public at the Experimental Biology meeting in April of 2019. You can read the press release, and see a video of the project in action HERE.

Other coverage of the project includes:

CBS Boston: Virtual Reality Tool Could Improve Balance For Parkinson Patients

CBS Philly: Scientists Believe Virtual Reality Could Treat Parkinson's Patients How This Virtual Reality Program Can Help People with Parkinson’s

The Times (UK): Virtual reality adventures help fight Parkinson’s

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Last Updated: 4/13/21