Buzzing ball trains the brain with degraded proprioception

Proprioception is how we understand our body’s position in space. It combines information of touch, skin and muscle stretch, vision and vestibular information. But proprioception deteriorates with age and older people then reply more on vision which often too is in decline. The loss of proprioception can lead to falls. As part of her PhD, Haylee Teasdale studied ways to measure and train proprioception in people with Parkinson’s Disease. She developed a therapeutic ball, similar in size to a basketball, which supplies stimuli through the hands according to the ball’s position. It allows the brain to understand where the body is in space. The ball trains the brain. Hayley is investigating the ball’s use for other conditions such as autism and rehabilitation following concussion.



Robyn Williams: Knowing where you are in space if you can’t see. But if you can see, you’re helped to get through space by little cells, telling you where your body is and parts of it. These cells can be zapped by age and even chemo treatment for cancer. Hayley Teasdale in Canberra is investigating this problem.

Hayley Teasdale: For me, the first step to understanding any concept in science is being able to pronounce it. Today, I want to tell you all about proprioception. The word ‘proprioception’ comes from the Latin proprius, meaning ‘one’s own’, and, and capiowhich means to take or grasp. So the word ‘proprioception’ roughly means ‘to grasp one’s position in space’. Proprioception is therefore like a sixth sense. It’s informed by your other senses of touch, skin and muscle stretch, your vision and vestibular information that comes from your inner ear. Your brain integrates all of that information and then coordinates your movements based on the position where your body is in space.

Proprioception begins to deteriorate as you get older. You begin to rely less on your senses of touch and skin stretch and rely more on your vision, so you end up watching what you’re doing. This is terrible timing, as it’s around the same time in your life that your vision also begins to deteriorate. When you stop watching what you’re doing, you no longer have an accurate idea of where your body is, making it more likely that you can trip and fall.

In my PhD at the University of Canberra, I studied ways to measure and train the sense of proprioception in people with Parkinson’s disease. I ran a clinical trial where people received a combination of physical therapy and brain stimulation over eight weeks. We did all this to see if we could improve balance and prevent falls. And we could! The people leaving my trials were different people to those who arrived. Their demeanour was brighter and they were out doing more with their family and friends. All that I did was improve their balance just the tiniest bit, but it made them feel safer in their own bodies, and that’s magic.

Unfortunately there was no way for the participants to continue doing this therapy from home, so their improvement had to stop there, and I hated that. It really frustrated me that this treatment needed to stop when the experiment ended, when we had made such an impact on the lives of our participants. These people inspired me to create a new solution to train proprioception in the home, and I came up with the idea for a ball which is similar in size to a basketball and is held with two hands.

The ball delivers spatial information to the sensitive surface on the palms of the hands in order to train proprioception. As you move, you’ll be able to know more accurately where you are in space, all through a buzzing sensation provided to your hands. It provides a new input to calibrate your senses, so the more you move, the better your brain can understand where exactly your body is in space. For that reason, we want people to combine the ball with something that they enjoy, that gets them moving, like Tai Chi, physiotherapy exercise, or even a dance class.

The sensory neurons carrying proprioception information transmit messages from your muscles and skin all the way to your brain at around 300 kilometres per hour. That’s fast. But the ball generates sensation faster even than this. To the person holding the ball, it looks and feels like the feedback is arriving in real time because computers inside the ball can generate that buzzing sensation faster than our bodies can process that information. This is key for the ball to be able to train your brain.

There are lots more potential benefits to a tool that provides real-time sensory feedback; perhaps as a sensory training tool for autism, or helping astronauts find their feet in different gravities, or maybe as a tool for rehabilitation from concussion. Watch this space, I’m working on it. But for now, I’m going to use this ball to help people with Parkinson’s disease stay on their feet.

Robyn Williams: Hayley Teasdale, finishing her PhD at the University of Canberra, and with her start-up just launched. And she came second in the national finals of Fame Lab.

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