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Using a portable device developed at Drexel University, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine have identified differences in brain activation patterns associated with postural stability in people with Parkinsonian syndromes and healthy adults. The findings describe the critical role of the prefrontal cortex in balance control and may have implications with respect to detecting and treating Parkinsonian symptoms in the elderly.

The system has allowed scientists, for the first time, to better understand the role of the brain’s prefrontal cortex during standing and walking.

The device employs functional near-infrared, or fNIR, spectroscopy, which uses light to monitor changes in blood oxygenation in the brain as individuals perform tasks, take tests, or receive stimulation.

Unlike fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), the fNIR system is fully portable: Participants wear a headband, allowing them to talk and move around while a computer collects data in real time.

Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine used the fNIR technology to compare 126 healthy adults to 117 individuals with mild Parkinson’s symptoms and 26 with more severe symptoms. While wearing the fNIR headband, the participants were asked to stand and look straight ahead while counting for 10 seconds. They then walked on a mat that captured their gait speed, pace, and stride length. The fNIR system recorded their brain oxygen levels during the entire testing period.

The researchers found that those with Parkinsonian symptoms demonstrated significantly higher prefrontal oxygenation levels to maintain stability when standing than participants with mild and no symptoms.

In an upcoming clinical trial, the researchers will use a computerized cognitive training program and the fNIR system to identify how cognitive training affects brain activation during walking.

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