Dance to prevent decline: Dementia and Parkinson's

Published: Jun. 11, 2019 at 3:56 PM EDT
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More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, and at least half a million suffer from Parkinson's. Now, researchers are looking at how dance instead of drugs may help these patients stay active.

It is not your typical dance class. Most of the participants have Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

"I think movement, specifically dance, is an incredibly powerful, nonpharmacological intervention," Wake Forest University associate professor of dance Christina Soriano said.

Wake Forest conducts a dance class as part of a study to determine if dance can benefit these patients.

"I always say change is the only constant, and so as we age, we need to be practicing change," Soriano said.

Soriano provides prompts instead of specific dance instruction, so everyone moves at their own ability.

"The preliminary results from our pilot study show that there was increased connectivity in certain brain regions," assistant professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine Dr. Christina Hugenschmidt said. "Those changes correlated with changes in balance and also decreased apathy and decreased depressive symptoms."

Eunice Benson has had Parkinson's for 15 years and said this class changed her life.

"I walk with a cane sometimes, but since I've been doing this, I don't have to," she said.

Janie Petersen said it helps with tremors and stiffness, and she can bring her husband, John, who has severe rheumatoid arthritis.

"So that he can participate and move too," she said.

This improvisational dance is not only helping with balance and mobility but also keeping patients socially engaged.

"You feel like you've accomplished something," Jim Stark said.

It is keeping Parkinson's patients moving in the right direction.

The class is part of a three-year randomized trial funded by the National Institutes of Health. In that trial, the control group plays party games while the other group dances.

The researchers are developing an app that would allow homebound patients to take part in the improvisational dance.



BACKGROUND: Neurodegenerative diseases affect millions of people worldwide. Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease are the most common types, with more than five million Americans living with Alzheimer's, and at least 500,000 Americans living with Parkinson's. Neurodegenerative diseases occur when nerve cells in the brain or peripheral nervous system lose function over time and ultimately die. Although treatments may help relieve some of the physical or mental symptoms associated with these diseases, there is currently no way to slow disease progression and no known cures. The risk of being affected by a neurodegenerative disease increases dramatically with age. This creates a critical need to improve our understanding of what causes these diseases and develop new approaches for treatment and prevention. Scientists now recognize that the combination of a person's genes and environment contributes to their risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease. (Source:

DANCING HELPS WITH PARKINSON'S: As a form of movement therapy, dance addresses several of the problems that come with Parkinson's disease. It provides regular social interaction for people who have this condition, has a positive effect on their mental well-being, and improves their movement and balance. "The biggest problem is falling," says Dawn Rose, a Senior Research Associate at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences & Arts in Switzerland. Because their balance and movement are affected, people with Parkinson's are more likely to fall and hurt themselves, which in turn leads to higher cost of care. Dancing regularly gives people more control of their balance, and makes them less likely to fall. Rose has studied the effect of rhythm and dancing in people with Parkinson's for several years and is currently looking at rhythmically guided movement therapy, where people are learning drumming rhythms to help them move more regularly. The people who attend these classes do not all have Parkinson's or neurological diseases. Some may have movement and balance issues that come with aging. There are caregivers who attend as well. (Source:

A NEW HOPE FOR NEURODEGENERATIVE DISEASES: A research team led by Professor Sung Bae Lee of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Professor Daehee Hwang of New Biology (Vice-head of the Plant Age and Life Research Group, IBS) has identified the early neuropathology mechanism of structural characteristics of polyglutamine toxic protein on neurodegenerative brain disorders. In this study, the researchers identified that coiled-coil structure of polyglutamine toxic protein, which is like an entangled telephone wire, causes the rapid deformation of neuron and early neurodegenerative diseases, such as Huntington's chorea and spino-cerebellar ataxias. While the research focused on Foxo protein as the first factor of the early symptom of neurodegenerative brain disorders, it also predicted that other factors would exist. Professor Lee said "The core of this research is that the coiled-coil structure of toxic protein that causes degenerative brain disorders entangle with the coiled-coil structure of other protein, which is an important cause of early neurodegenerative diseases. By developing a treatment targeting the entanglement based on coiled-coil structure through this research, we expect to be able to have effective treatments to alleviate the early symptoms of neurodegenerative brain disorders." (Source: