Joseph DeSouza, Associate Professor,
Psychology Department, York University
Psychosocial Pilot Project Grant: $44,999

The neural mechanisms behind dance therapy for Parkinson’s disease

One of the enduring mysteries about Parkinson’s disease is why dancing to a strong beat unlocks the movements of people who are normally stiff and periodically immobilized because of this degenerative disorder.

At York University in Toronto, neuroscientist Joseph DeSouza is deciphering that mystery, by scanning the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease who are learning to dance. Working with Canada’s National Ballet School, DeSouza and his graduate students investigate the regions of the brain activated when people with Parkinson’s visualize themselves performing the steps of a ballet they have recently learned. They scan people again once they’ve practised their dance for weeks.

“We hope to find the neural architecture that is related to learning and dancing,” says DeSouza. “We already see from the preliminary research in Parkinson’s disease that it [dancing] is using a lot of brain structures outside of the basal ganglia.”

Using regions of the brain outside the basal ganglia is good news. That’s because the dopamine-producing brain cells that are lost in Parkinson’s disease are located mainly in the basal ganglia.

DeSouza hopes to prove that the other structures of the brain activated by dancing are also connected to movement. If so, using dance or deep brain stimulation in those areas might relieve the motor symptoms that make it difficult for people with Parkinson’s to walk and to control movements.

Other research on dancing and Parkinson’s shows that improvements in balance and gait last long after dance classes end. DeSouza also wants people to know that dancing has other positive benefits.

“All the other dance classes that take place all over the world show that people feel better – they’re happier,” DeSouza says. “It’s almost like a supplemental therapy that helps them cope with whatever they’re dealing with.”

DeSouza has always been fascinated by the circuitry of the brain, and now has a more personal reason for pursuing his research and attending dance classes with the Parkinson’s group. Recently, he has experienced tremors in one leg and in his hand.

“Maybe there are neuroprotective events that happen in your brain when you are doing dance,” he says. “If I can understand what’s happening in my own body when I push myself, I can potentially contribute in a significant way.”