One of the more debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's disease is something known as "gait freeze," wherein the person temporarily loses the ability to step forward while walking. Dutch scientists from the University of Twente and Radboud University Medical Center, however, have come up with something that significantly reduces the problem – they've developed shoes with lasers in them.
Generally seen in the more advanced stages of Parkinson's, gait freeze is not only frustrating and inconvenient, but it can also be hazardous. This is due to the fact that while the person's foot may stay stuck in place on the floor, their upper body continues to move forward, potentially causing them to lose their balance and fall.
One of the things that helps alleviate the problem is if the person has visual targets on the floor – such as the lines between tiles – that they can make a point of looking at and stepping over. Doing so activates circuits in their brain, which allow them to subsequently keep walking.
And that's where the laser shoes come in.
Upon contact with the ground, each shoe projects a red line on the floor in front of the other shoe. The wearer then has a visual target to step over with that other foot, which in turn triggers its own laser when it comes down – the alternating process continues as long as the person wants to keep walking.
In lab tests conducted on 19 Parkinson's patients, use of the shoes reduced the number of freezing episodes by 46 percent. Additionally, when the episodes did occur, they lasted about half as long as they did without the lasers.
Not everyone wants shoes that flash laser beams with every step they take, though, whether they need the help or not. "Ideally, the laser should only be activated once the blockage is detected, but we're not quite there yet," says researcher Murielle Ferraye, who created the shoes. "Freezing is a very complex phenomenon."
You can see a test subject walking without and then with the laser assistance, in the videos below.
UPDATE (Dec. 22/17): There is now a commercially-available shoe attachment known as Path Finder, that provides the same functionality.
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