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November 13, 2001


Can Chinese Mind-Body Exercises Help Improve Mobility in Patients with Parkinson's Disease? Emory Researchers Begin New Study to Find Out Answer

Ancient Chinese martial arts forms have been a popular exercise used by seniors for years. Many find that the regular practice of these various martial arts helps improve balance, strength and body awareness. Now, researchers at Emory University are studying just how effective two Chinese mind-body exercises, Tai Chi and Qi Gong (pronounced Chi Gong), may be in patients with Parkinson's disease. The goal is to determine if these exercise modalities can improve the motor and non-motor disabilities associated with the disease. Investigators also intend to compare whether the potential benefits accrued from these "eastern" exercise forms differ from those we assume can be gained from more traditional "western" forms, such as aerobic exercises.

"Participants in this trial are taught to train their minds as much as to train their bodies," says Jorge Juncos, M.D., associate professor of neurology, Emory University School of Medicine and principal investigator of this study. "Our goal is to find out if these Chinese mind-body modalities can actually improve the many aspects of quality of life adversely affected in Parkinson's disease."

The trial is one of three new studies in the Emory University Center for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in Neurodegenerative Diseases. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health recently awarded Emory a five-year grant for the Center and three individual research grants totaling $5.7 million.

Participants taking part in this controlled, double-blinded study are randomized into three groups. One-third will learn Tai Chi, described as meditation in movement using controlled breathing combined with a slow and precise flow of body postures. One-third will learn Qi Gong, described as meditation in stillness during which participants learn to better control their movements through directed visualization (imagery), meditation and controlled breathing. The remaining one-third will take part in a walk-cycle aerobic exercise program. All participants will exercise for two hours a week in two sessions. The study will last for 16 weeks with two weeks of evaluations before and after the classes. Researchers will follow the participants for six months after the study to determine how many continued to pursue their designated exercise outside of the trial. They will also look at long-term behavior and analyze their progress following the study.

"Another goal of the study is to examine the importance of caloric expenditure, or burning calories through exercise, and its benefits on motor function that may result from exercise in Parkinson's disease," according to Dr. Juncos, who has done extensive research with Parkinson's patients over the years. Those learning Qi Gong will experience low caloric expenditure, since little movement is required for this exercise.

Those learning Tai Chi will experience a moderate level of caloric expenditure, since their activities involve more action and movement. Those in the aerobic exercise group will experience a higher still level of caloric expenditure, since they will walk and bicycle in the gym. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology are working in collaboration with Emory researchers on this study.

"Participants will spend time at the Georgia Tech Center for Human Movement Studies, or gait lab, before and after the 16-week exercise sessions," says Steven Wolf, Ph.D., FAPTA, professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine and co-principal investigator of the Chinese modalities study. "They will undergo a number of tests and evaluations in the Movement Analysis Core of the trial. Gait and balance statistics will be recorded and analyzed under the supervision of myself and Robert Gregor, Ph.D., director of the Georgia Tech Center."

Dr. Wolf, professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, has previously studied the effects of Tai Chi on the elderly. A three-year investigation, which concluded in 1994, found that Tai Chi exercises can significantly reduce the risk of falls among older people and may be beneficial in maintaining strength in people age 70 and older.

Participants in the study must have early to moderately advanced Parkinson's disease. They must also be between the ages of 40 and 85, on stable medication treatment and not engaged in regular intense exercise more than twice a week. They must be able to walk independently most of the day and be capable of traveling to and from Emory during 16-weeks of the trial. To learn more about this study, call Emory Health Connection at (404) 778-7777.

Participants are also being recruited for two other studies in Emory's CAM Center. The studies involve the use of Valerian root to treat sleep disturbances in patients with Parkinson's disease and the use of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to relieve depression associated with Parkinson's disease.

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