Dr. Kaylena Ehgoetz-Martens, Post-doctoral Fellow
University of Sydney
Basic Research Fellowship: $80,000 over 2 years

Uncovering the neural mechanism underlying freezing of gait in Parkinson’s disease: understanding the role of stress and emotion

Neuroscientist Kaylena Ehgoetz Martens has more than an academic interest in uncovering the reasons almost half of everyone in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease experiences terrifying moments of freezing in place, unable to move.

For three years, Ehgoetz Martens worked at an exercise/rehabilitation program with a woman with Parkinson’s disease who experienced severe freezing of her gait. Three times a week, Ehgoetz Martens helped the woman master a series of sensory-based and coordination exercises, at the Movement Disorders Research and Rehabilitation Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University.

At the end of their work together, the woman went from being largely wheelchair-bound to walking short distances. More importantly, her less frequent falls and increased independence improved her outlook on life.

“It totally changed her mood,” Ehgoetz Martens says. “Whenever she was able to walk, her mouth would be open, smiling from ear-to-ear. It was really important to me that we were able to change how independent and how worthwhile she felt for those last few years.”

Ehgoetz Martens’ friend and patient has since died, but she inspired the neuroscientist’s determination to pursue a research career focused on freezing of gait. Ehgoetz Martens not only wrote about their work for her undergraduate thesis, she pursued her Master’s and a PhD that demonstrated the link between anxiety and freezing.

Using virtual reality tools, Ehgoetz Martens studied the gait of people with Parkinson’s who walked across a plank lying on the floor. When participants wore a headset that created a virtual environment, the program would suddenly “drop” the floor from under the plank, so the participants appeared to be walking nine metres above a deep pit.

For the first time, Ehgoetz Martens’ study demonstrated that anxiety provokes movement breakdown, slower walking, and freezing.

Now, during a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Sydney in Australia, Ehgoetz Martens will conduct similar research involving patients who participate in virtual reality scenarios while they are in a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine. As they manipulate foot pedals to stimulate walking, the fMRI will scan their brains to chart the brain structures involved in their anxiety and in freezing.

Ehgoetz Martens hopes her research will result in a new model of what causes freezing of gait, and new ways to treat and reduce the anxiety that triggers freezing.

“Part of improving quality of life and even disease severity comes from treating these non-motor symptoms,” she says.