For Roberto Macias, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago, the advantages of a new system to help people with balance disorders are clear: “I can go faster. I can go farther. I am stronger. I’m more confident.”

That is just what Beom-Chan Lee had hoped to hear. Lee, assistant professor in the department of health and human performance, and members of his lab developed the system, involving a smartphone app and a wearable belt equipped with sensors and actuators to help with one of the most disconcerting symptoms of the disease.

Parkinson’s affects 10 million people worldwide. Because the causes are unknown, there is no scientifically validated way to reduce the risk. And while medication and surgery can help with some of the symptoms, including tremor, bradykinesia (slowness of movements) and muscle rigidity, Lee said problems with posture and balance don’t respond to currently available treatments. Falling is a major concern for people with Parkinson’s.

Macias, a retired veterinarian, was one of the first people to test the system after it was validated in the lab. People use it for prescribed exercises at home three times a week for six weeks; they are given the system afterward to continue the benefits.

The system uses biofeedback, visual and “touch” feedback—actuators that vibrate to signal the patients how to move and where their body should be positioned in space. A smartphone app—the phone is placed at eye level when the patient stands inside a walker for additional stability—guides them through exercises recommended by physical therapists.

That data is wirelessly transmitted to the lab, along with information from a Fitbit, allowing researchers to track not only their performance during the exercises, but also how active they are afterward.

Early results are good, Lee said. “What we have observed is they improve their balance control and walking performance, and their improved balance and gait performance sustain for an extended period after using our system at home.”

An extension of funding from the American Parkinson Disease Association will allow Lee and his lab to continue refining the system.

In the meantime, participating patients have one more tool to improve their balance and quality of life.

Gustavo Flores, who was diagnosed in 2006, participates in a number of activities through the Houston Area Parkinson Society, including tango, ballet and singing lessons. Now the retired biochemist is using the balance belt, too.

Better balance, he explained, allows him to remain busy.

And staying active is important.

image of people working out
Mike Kingman is shown wearing the belt which is equipped with sensors and actuators which help with his stability.

Mike Kingman, a retired chemical engineer, kept going after his diagnosis 12 years ago, even pulling a 30-foot recreational vehicle from one end of the United States to the other.

About three years ago, he fell and tore a tendon in his right foot. Balance problems snowballed.

Medication gives him up to six hours a day of good “up” time, when he can walk, pursue his hobbies and otherwise feel normal. “When I’m up, my voice is normal. I feel like I’m a chemical engineer, and I can solve all my problems,” he said.

The goal is for the belt to maintain and even extend his “up” time. It has worked for other patients.

“When I do my exercises,” Macias said, “I am almost able to run.”