Combining dance and technology for Parkinson’s therapy

By Colin Czerneda, October 15, 2014

Dance has been shown to help improve the quality of life for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease, and a team of researchers at McMaster is working on bringing therapeutic dance into the home.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. People afflicted with the disease experience slowness of movement, stiffness, tremors and movement difficulties. Efforts to combat the disease have shown that music-based therapeutic dance can help to improve quality of life for sufferers. Many benefit from improved mobility while continuing the sessions.

Making the therapeutic dance sessions something that can be done at home is the goal of School of the Arts professor Matthew Woolhouse and his team of researchers. The team has been closely collaborating with Hamilton City Ballet Dance for Parkinson’s, a local group that provides regular therapeutic sessions.

“We’re developing technology-based interactive dance activities that their students who have Parkinson’s can do in their own homes,” said Woolhouse. “We’re delighted to be working with Hamilton City Ballet Dance for Parkinson’s. They have a very unique skill set that we’re bringing our research knowledge to."

The team has been developing interactive software based on the local group's dance sessions, and making use of Microsoft’s Kinect sensor — a relatively inexpensive motion-tracking camera that can be used to track the position participant’s limbs. Once setup in a living room or an office, the software presents a variety of activities that can then be tracked and completed thanks to the Kinect sensor.

“We’re able to make something like dance accessible to people that lack confidence to do it,” said Stephanie Williams, a researcher on the project. “It facilitates independence and allows people with Parkinson’s to dance every day."

Williams cautioned, however, that it doesn’t replace the peer support opportunities that the in-class sessions that Hamilton City Ballet Dance for Parkinson’s offers. What it does is provide a powerful supplement.

An initial rollout during the summer proved the concept, and further research and development continues thanks to Forward With Integrity funding, Research@McMaster support and contributions of space and resources by the Faculties of Humanities and Engineering.