“I’m interested in how we can use MRI … to improve the daily lives of people who live with PD.”
Kristen Pickett, Ph.D.
We already know from many studies that physical exercise can help people who live with Parkinson’s disease (PD). Among the aspects of PD that it can benefit are
movement symptoms, depression, sleepiness, cognitive symptoms and the risk of falling.
“But we really don’t know what exercise is doing to the brain,” says Kristen Pickett, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. If we can find ways to understand this better, she says, it may be possible to design and prescribe specific exercise regimens for people with PD. “We might be able to say, for example, whether it’s a better use of time to go for a swim or for a run.”
In 2012, Dr. Pickett received a competitive Mentored Clinical Research Award funded through a partnership between the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF) and the Parkinson Study Group. The fellowship provides up-and-coming scientists with the opportunity to conduct patient-oriented research under the guidance of a mentor. And it provides them with the tools they need to test new therapies for PD.
Dr. Pickett worked with mentors Gammon Earhart, P.T., Ph.D., and Joel Perlmutter, M.D., both faculty members at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO.
Dr. Pickett conducted a follow-up study to one originally led by Dr. Earhart and funded by PDF on tango and exercise in PD. Using her previous experience working with the brain imaging instrument MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), Dr. Pickett, along with her mentors and colleagues, designed a study comparing the brain activity of three groups of people with PD, each one engaging in a different form of exercise: the first dancing the tango, the second doing stretching and the third walking on a treadmill.
One hurdle she encountered is that it’s impossible to measure brain activity with an MRI while a person is exercising. The procedure requires that the subject remain absolutely still. So Dr. Pickett used the next best approach: visualization. “We know that if you are able to close your eyes and visualize yourself doing a task, your brain activates very similarly to the way it would if you were actually performing it,” she says.
During the MRI scan, she had the participants — more than 100 — imagining themselves walking. For comparison purposes, Dr. Pickett also performed
scans on participants while they were at rest (and not visualizing walking).
Among the early results of their study, Dr. Pickett and her colleagues found that even before the exercise programs began, patterns of brain activity were different between people with PD who experienced freezing during walking and those who did not. They also noted correlations between multiple brain regions (some areas known to be affected by PD and some areas known to be related to walking) and the speed at which participants actually walked.
Through her intriguing project, Dr. Pickett has helped to advance Parkinson’s disease science and transitioned to a career as an independent researcher.
Looking forward, Dr. Pickett says, “I’m really interested in how we can use MRI in a very practical way, in physical therapy or occupational therapy settings, to improve the daily lives of people who live with Parkinson’s
Dr. Pickett’s research was funded through the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation-Parkinson Study Group Mentored Clinical Research Award. In 2014, PDF is
supporting the award with $50,000.