Fulbright TechImpact Awardee Researches Parkinson’s Disease

Fulbright TechImpact Awardee Researches Parkinson’s Disease

Dr. Denise McGrath is a lecturer in Exercise Science at UCD, and in the past year has become a valued research collaborator of Move4Parkinson’s. She has recently been awarded a Fulbright TechImpact award which has enabled her to travel to the United States to the Wyss Institute at Harvard University to undertake research on Parkinson’s Disease. Denise says of the award:

“This is a fantastic opportunity to work with a very innovative group of people at the world-leading Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. We have undertaken a feasibility study to see if there are existing technological innovations that can be applied to PD, especially in overcoming the debilitating unpredictability of PD in those who experience unpredictable “off” periods and freezing gait symptoms. This award brings together expertise in soft wearable robotics (led by Dr. Conor Walsh, Harvard), clinical expertise in PD (Dr. Terry Ellis, Boston
University) and my own biomechanical expertise to tackle these issues. I have been working since July with this team, workshopping multiple potential solutions to these problems, with a view to arriving at a clear understanding of the most user-friendly and effective wearable device that is currently possible.

The goal of the Fulbright TechImpact award is to explore how technology can contribute to a larger social value. I had been working on another idea for my Fulbright application when I met Mags Mullarney, CEO of Move4Parkisnon’s, via another research project. Mags, who has Parkinson’s, very quickly conveyed to me the challenges that People with Parkinson’s face on a daily basis. In fact, at our very first meeting, Mags experienced an unexpected “off” period i.e. an unpredictable wearing off of her medication. I witnessed a perfectly healthy, vibrant woman who had marched confidently into the room an hour beforehand (those of you who know Mags will know what I mean!) suddenly become tense and unable to move from her chair, anxiously requesting a wheelchair. Although on an intellectual level, I had read all about this symptom of PD, I had not seen how starkly it can affect a “healthy” person’s life.

Mags explained how her unpredictable “off” periods can suddenly transform her from the fit and well person she knows herself to be, to an incapacitated person she hardly recognises. And this can happen, unexpectedly, numerous times a day on a bad day. It is not surprising then that People with Parkinson’s who experience these unpredictable “off” periods tend to withdraw from the world because they can no longer trust their own bodies. Their confidence is eroded, they no longer feel in control of their lives and they start to avoid social situations for fear of an “off” period and the ensuing burden to others. They very often become socially isolated. Not everyone with PD experiences these symptoms.

Through Move4Parksinson’s, I learned about the real-life impact of PD on people’s lives. It is an incredibly complex disease that manifests differently in each unique individual. I decided to ditch the original idea I was working on for the Fulbright TechImpact award, and wrote a completely new proposal on this topic, which felt more in line with the programme’s vision i.e. exploring technology for greater social value. I was delighted and very grateful that the Fulbright Commission also recognised the importance of these societal issues by choosing to fund this project”.

Dr Denise McGrath
School Of Public Health, Physio & Pop Sc, Woodview House, Belfield, Dublin 4
Tel: 017163453
Email: denise.mcgrath@ucd.ie