A portable pocket-sized stimulation device is being tested on patients with Parkinson's disease in the hope that it will alleviate balance problems associated with the disease. Amy Pollock reports.
Staffan Lindblom finds it difficult to keep his balance. Like other Parkinson's disease sufferers, this has got worse for Staffan as his disease has progressed. Now Swedish scientists say a wearable device could alleviate this by stimulating patients' sense of balance with a weak electric "noise". The pocket-sized device delivers "noisy" electrical stimulation through patches attached behing the ears, where the balance, or vestibular, system is located. Associate professor Filip Bergquist led the research team from the University of Gothenburg's Sahlgrenska Academy (SOUNDBITE)(English) DOCTOR FILIP BERGQUIST SAYING: "It is a current device which is very similar to the ones that people use for pain relief with electrical stimulation of muscles and nerves, what's called TENS (Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation). The difference is that we use a particular current profile which you can stimulate the balance organs with without creating a balance disturbance." Reduced levels of the hormone dopamine in the brains of Parkinson's sufferers causes these balance issues, along with tremors, poor mobility, slowness and stiffness. The drug used to treat these symptoms, Levodopa, becomes less effective over time so Bergquist's team were looking for something to supplement it. (SOUNDBITE)(English) DOCTOR FELIX BERGQUIST SAYING: "What we are hoping for with this device is to find a treatment for...Parkinson's disease where Levodopa is not enough. And in particular in patients with Parkinson's disease where there is problem with gait and balance. But this may not be restricted to Parkinson's disease, so there may be other conditions with poor balance where you could use electrical stimulation of the vestibular organs, the balance organs to improve balance and gait." Staffan's condition couldn't be helped with this device, with doctors suspecting there could also be other causes to his balance problems. But he is hopeful that small steps towards alleviating Parkinson's symptoms are being made. (SOUNDBITE)(Swedish) PATIENT STAFFAN LINDBLOM SAYING: "I have become hardened in the sense that I do not have too great expectations. But I still believe that something will be found at some point which could be useful." And the stimulation device could be available to Parkinson's patients who might find it helpful within five years, according to the Swedish team. That's if the next stage of trials in patients' homes go well.