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Research: Improving Life with Parkinson's

Dr. Angela Ridgel, an assistant professor of exercise science/ physiology at Kent State University, is leading two new research projects to help individuals with Parkinson’s disease improve cognitive and motor function. Ridgel has been studying Parkinson’s disease for five years, and the two new research projects are bringing her closer to developing exercise therapy that can delay the progression of Parkinson’s and lower Parkinson’s medications dosages.

“Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, and over time, individuals are required to take more and more medication – sometimes with negative side effects – in order to manage symptoms such as decreased motor and cognitive function,” Ridgel said. “The goal is to develop widely applicable exercise therapy to delay the progression of symptoms and reduce the need for medication.

“Nearly 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease, and the longer people live, the more likely they are to develop progressive neurological disorders. I believe, and my research is proving, that we can use exercise therapy to promote improvements in the way the nervous system works and improve the lives of these individuals.”

Research Study #1:  The Parkinson’s Disease Cognitive Intervention

Ridgel, with support from Kent State’s Dr. John Gunstad, associate professor of psychology, and Dr. Ellen Glickman, professor of exercise physiology, is currently studying the impact of upper- and lower-extremity exercise on cognition, motor function and cerebral blood flow, as well as cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength in individuals with Parkinson’s disease. The goal is to add additional exercise therapy besides cycling for Parkinson’s patients. Ridgel’s past research has proven cycling improves motor and cognitive function.  

Initial findings presented at the Society for Neuroscience Meeting in November 2011 reveal that individuals with Parkinson’s experience improvements in cognitive function, mobility and oxygen saturation in the brain after participating in the program’s comprehensive exercise intervention. This exercise protocol developed by Kent State researchers can improve fitness, motor and cognitive function in a short, eight-week period.

Additionally, through extensive psychological evaluations measuring memory, attention, problem-solving and language, the researchers are examining which underlying brain responses and neurological functions are associated with cognitive improvements. These findings may lead to additional methods for Parkinson’s rehabilitation, according to Gunstad.

“With a greater understanding of how exercise impacts neurological function, we can gauge which areas of the brain are key to repairing cognitive function,” Gunstad said. “This could eventually lead us to look for methods of brain stimulation that may produce the same cognitive benefits for Parkinson’s.”

Ridgel will present the results of the study at the American College of Sports Medicine conference in May 2012.

Research Study #2:  Smart Bike

“While the work we are doing with exercise therapy has been successful, there is quite a bit of variability in the data,” Ridgel said. “Individuals with Parkinson’s each have different symptoms and capabilities, making it challenging to develop a single, applicable rehabilitation program ideal for all patients.

“Our goal is to build a ‘smart bike’ that would allow us to create a database of symptoms and responses. Using this database, we could then design a cycling program tailored to an individual’s unique capabilities and challenges.”

On Jan. 7, 2012, Ridgel received a two-year, $390,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop the smart bike in collaboration with Dr. Kenneth Loparo of Case Western Reserve University and Dr. Fred Discenzo of Rockwell Automation.

Starting in June 2012, she will use the “smart bike” to assess individual effort, performance, skill level and therapeutic value. The ultimate goal is to devise a computer-driven system that alters resistance, speed and time to benefit each individual. Using an established baseline, the bike will output a customized exercise program to benefit individuals with Parkinson’s. If successful, the team can apply for a second grant to develop a solution for widespread use in therapist and doctor’s offices.

About Dr. Angela Ridgel

Ridgel received her undergradu­ate degree in biology from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, a master’s degree in biol­ogy at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and her doctoral degree in biomedical sciences from Marshall University in West Virginia. Ridgel completed her postdoctoral training at Case West­ern Reserve University and Cleve­land Clinic.

Her early work used animal models to examine the neurobiology of movement and the effects of aging on movement. Most recently, she has been interested in how aging and neurological disorders limit exercise and movement in humans. Ridgel’s current research project examines the effects of exercise mode and rate on improvements in motor function, cognition and balance in Parkinson’s disease.

About Kent State University

Kent State University is Northeast Ohio’s leading public research university with more than 40,000 students. The university’s eight-campus system is among the largest regional systems in the country. Today, Kent State has become an engine for economic, cultural and workforce development – locally and internationally – as one of the premier Ohio universities. Kent State is ranked as one of the world’s top universities by Times Higher Education of London and one of the best national universities by U.S. News & World Report. The university also is ranked among the nation’s 77 public research universities demonstrating high-research activity by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information on Kent State, visit