Bill Kuhn, a patient with Parkinson’s disease, goes through a boxing drill as he runs on UCSF’s anti-gravity treadmill.
By Robin Hindery
Sonja Conta laced up her running shoes, adjusted her “tutu” and prepared to defy gravity.
What sounds like a dream sequence was, in fact, a fairly typical afternoon for Conta, a 65-year-old with Parkinson’s disease. She is among the first non-astronauts to make use of an innovative, “weightless” running machine at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus.
Antigravity training devices were originally developed by NASA to help reintroduce astronauts to a weighted environment, but in 2008, the Food and Drug Administration cleared the machines for medical use.
Last year, UCSF was among the first in California to acquire its own machine – the G-Trainer by Alter-G, Inc. – and it is currently housed in the Physical Therapy Health and Wellness Program in Bakar Fitness & Recreation Center.
Wearing a pair of fitted compression shorts with a zippered skirt around the waist – what Conta calls her tutu – users climb onto the antigravity treadmill and zip themselves into a plastic bubble that surrounds the machine, thereby creating an airtight, pressurized enclosure around their lower bodies.
By adjusting the amount of lifting force, users can reduce the amount of body weight on their legs and feet by as much as 80 percent.
The effect is nothing short of miraculous, patients say.
“You feel like you’re kind of in heaven, floating through the clouds,” Conta said as she bounded effortlessly along the moving belt. “It’s how you used to feel, running when you were 8 years old and didn’t have a care in the world.”
Conta, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease four years ago, said she never thought she would run again. That all changed in December, when she enrolled in a first-of-its-kind study measuring the effects of the G-Trainer on endurance, balance, pattern of gait, and various other physical benchmarks and quality-of-life indicators in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
“Over the last 10 years, I have been trying to learn more about how to retrain the brain, and I have come to the conclusion that training must be learning-based,” said Nancy Byl, PT, PhD, the study’s principal investigator and a professor in the UCSF Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science.
Nancy Byl, left, increases the speed as Sonja Conta, a patient with Parkinson’s disease, runs on UCSF’s anti-gravity treadmill.
“We had already been studying different paradigms of learning-based training in patients with neurological conditions such as focal dystonia and in patients post-stroke,” she said. “Now we are applying what we’ve learned to patients with Parkinson’s disease and studying the effects of learning-based training on voluntary motor control, functional independence and quality of life.”
Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder caused by the loss of dopamine production in the brain. In the United States, approximately 60,000 new Parkinson’s cases are diagnosed every year, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. The most common signs of the disease are tremors, slowness of movement, rigidity and difficulty with balance.
Byl’s preliminary study started in August 2008 and included 10 patients with Parkinson’s disease. Participants completed an eight-week session of twice-weekly G-Trainer workouts that focused on balance training, memory training, and dual-task, aerobic treadmill training in which running was combined with another activity such as throwing and catching a ball or punching a boxing mitt.
The initial results were impressive: The number of falls was down more than 90 percent; quality of gait increased 50 percent; and walking endurance rose 25 percent, Byl said.
Just as important as the physical gains were the accompanying improvements in attitude and mental well-being, she said.
“Almost everyone in the study told me, ‘I used to feel depressed, but now I’m feeling better about my life and better about myself,” Byl said.
Studies of Parkinson’s disease indicate that almost half of all patients will experience depression at some point in their illness, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The depression is likely caused by biological changes related to the underlying brain disease, rather than solely a reaction to the disability, studies suggest.
All of the patients in Byl’s preliminary study had musculoskeletal problems such as degenerative arthritis. But even patients with multiple ailments seem to have benefited from Byl’s multifaceted regimen.
Former study participant Bill Kuhn, 70, suffers not only from Parkinson’s disease, but also from low back pain, knee arthritis, focal dystonia and the lingering effects of a 2006 triple-bypass surgery.
Since he started using the machine in August, it has helped him improve the length of his stride and he has fallen less frequently. Plus, Kuhn said, “It’s fun.”
Kuhn said he hopes he can continue to keep up his G-Trainer workouts, now that his involvement in Byl’s study has ended.
“I do notice the difference, now that I’m not doing it as regularly,” he said during a recent jogging session. “I’m losing some of my chops.”
UCSF and other institutions are currently working with Alter-G to develop a prototype of a less expensive antigravity treadmill that would be available for general use in community fitness centers, Byl said. Currently, patients must set up an appointment with a physical therapist to determine whether antigravity training is appropriate for their condition.
For her part, Byl has already launched the next phase of her Parkinson’s study, in which participants are randomly assigned to one of four groups: regular aerobic training, dual-task aerobic training, dual-task aerobic and balance training, and dual-task aerobic and memory training.
Patients with Parkinson’s disease are just the beginning, she said, noting that research like hers is part of a broader commitment to improving patient care through the integration of new technologies – a commitment that helps form the core mission of the Physical Therapy Health and Wellness Program, and of UCSF in general.
Sonja Conta, practices proper running form on UCSF’s anti-gravity treadmill.
“We think the concept of maximizing independence and quality of life is critical for patients with chronic disease,” Byl said. “We do believe it is possible to maintain positive self-esteem and safe mobility despite neuromusculoskeletal impairments.”
For proof of that, one needs only spend five minutes with a patient like Sonja Conta.
“After I was diagnosed [with Parkinson’s], for over a year I didn’t even tell my family,” she said. “I was always worrying and waiting, never knowing if it was going to keep getting worse.”
“Now I’m walking better and straighter, and it has helped my mood so much,” she said of the antigravity training. “Something like this machine – it shows us that we can have hope.”
To find out more about the G-Trainer and determine whether antigravity training might be appropriate for your condition, call 415/514-4816.
Photos by Robin Hindery
UCSF Physical Therapy Health and Wellness Program