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U of C professors researching effect of dance on Parkinson's disease

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A research program from the University of Calgary is exploring how dance can help people with Parkinson’s disease.

Researchers are hoping that the combination of gross and fine motor skills involved in dance will help strengthen the connections between different parts of the brain so that healthy regions will take on the load from regions affected by Parkinson’s.

The brain is not divided into distinct sections as people thought, lead researcher Afra Foroud says, a neuroscientist and adjunct assistant professor with the U of C dance department.

“One thing the field of neuroscience is starting to explore is this understanding that the brain is not necessarily functioning in a compartmentalized way,” Foroud says.

While the brain can be divided up into general regions identified with memory, movement and vision, the brain is much more complex.

“The way that the brain works is that it incorporates many aspects of different regions to produce one behaviour,” Foroud says.

With that in mind, dance and kinesiology professor Anne Flynn and Foroud have partnered with Decidedly Jazz Dance and Parkinson’s Alberta as one of the case studies in a five-year, $2.5-million national research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada on Arts for Social Change, one of two case studies the U of C dance department runs.

The program teaches jazz dance twice a week to about 45 participants, both with and without Parkinson’s, taught by professional dancers.

The six-month dance program began in October with a number of assessment tests that had participants performing a number of tasks that can be difficult when dealing with Parkinson’s. Tasks include tying shoe laces, doing up buttons, pouring water into a glass from a jug and sitting down in a chair and standing up.

“These are things that seem quite mundane, right? We do them every day. We don’t even give them a second thought,” Foroud says. But with Parkinson’s these tasks become increasingly difficult.

The program will end in early April with the same series of tasks to determine if participants have improved along with a series of interviews to see how people feel after the program.

For Norma Male, 66, the dance class is the highlight of her week. She attends the class with her husband Bill Male.

“It’s one hour where we can both forget that I shake,” Norma says. The music, routines and camaraderie helps her and her husband forget for an hour about Parkinson’s, she says.

Her husband says the challenge of using the motor skills and putting them to music has been good for Norma.

“I think that she’s better off for it, absolutely,” Bill says. “That’s what the Parkinson’s disease needs, you need to keep challenging the brain.”

Flynn says she had the idea for the project after the university introduced a $500,000 project that introduced four pilot projects in the East Village in 2005, when the university was still considering building the downtown campus in the East Village instead of its current location on 8 St. and 8 Ave.

One of the four projects was the dance department’s Urban Dance Connect project which held dance classes for seniors in the YWCA. The program is still running at the Golden Age Club in partnership with the Alex Community Health Centre.

Dance classes for people with Parkinson’s is not new. Flynn says work with Parkinson’s and dance has been developing over the last decade, including at Mark Morris Dance Group in New York. But Flynn was interested in beginning a project to research the benefit dance has on people with Parkinson’s.

Last year between January and March, with Decidedly Jazz Dance and the help of U of C professor Dr. Bin Hu, Flynn began a pilot project with 27 people. Flynn says the project was a success.

“The music, the movement — it just takes over. There’s no stopping it,” Flynn says. “Everybody came back every week.”

Between $10,000 from the Rozsa Foundation, the aid from the $2.5-million Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council project and seed funding from the U of C and from Parkinson Alberta, Flynn included a research component, brought in Foroud as a researcher this year and expanded the project to include two classes a week.

As a research project, classes are free for participants.

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