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Walking to the beat of a different drummer


Jessica Grahn, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Brain and Mind Institute,
Western University
Pilot Project Grant: $44,987

Scientific Title: Individual differences in response to auditory cues in Parkinson's disease

One of the most embarrassing aspects of having Parkinson's disease is publicly freezing in place, and being unable to move. The gait problem can prevent people from moving through doorways and using elevators or escalators, and it can also trigger falls.

As a treatment to reduce freezing, music has much to recommend it. Having people with Parkinson's disease listen to music as they walk to its beat often helps them to lengthen their strides and to move more quickly. Listening to music while walking can also prevent falls; keeping people more mobile and independent.

Music has no negative side effects; it's a completely portable rehabilitation tool and there is no stigma to walking around wearing headphones. But not everyone can identify the beat in music – a phenomenon we can see on any dance floor. If people have trouble identifying the pulse in music, it's difficult to walk in time to it, says neuroscientist Jessica Grahn.

At Western University in London, Ontario, Grahn measures the ability of people with Parkinson's to perceive music's beat. She's also measuring improvements in their gaits and in their ability to unlock their steps if they have chosen the music they walk to themselves, if it has special meaning to them. Grahn also wonders if just having people walk while listening to music, but without having to move in time to a beat, will improve gait.

Finding out how beat perception and musical choice affect the ability of people with Parkinson's disease to use music as therapy will enable Grahn to recommend different strategies for using music to improve the walking ability of people with Parkinson's disease.

“The over-arching goal is to try to tailor the cues that we use to what the individual most benefits from, in the hopes that we can start getting a greater number of patients benefitting from these therapies,” says Grahn.

Grahn, who is an assistant professor at Western, is also a musician, with an undergraduate degree in piano performance. Combining both her interests enables Grahn to investigate the use of music and rhythm to help stimulate movement and activity in the areas of the brain that control that movement.