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Cover of the spring 2003 SFSU magazine. Geography Professor Max Kirkeberg and students tour of San Francisco's Western Addition.


SFSU Magazine Online, Spring/Summer 2003, Volume 3, Number 2.
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Campus BeatResearchers January Atanacio, left, and Melinda Piper, right, spot Parkinson's patient Chris Priddis as he stands on a foam cushion, eyes closed and arms folded, for 30 seconds. The balance test is not as easy as it looks. Photo by Lui Gino de Grandis


Testing Parkinson's Treatment

Chris Priddis of Orem, Utah, comes to San Francisco State once a year to take an unusual test. In a room in the back of the gymnasium, Priddis walks forward about 10 yards then turns around and walks back. As he does so, infrared cameras capture his movements and a woman holding a clipboard takes notes.

Nine hundred miles seems like a long way to come to pace a floor. But medical researchers at three Bay Area institutions, among them San Francisco State, are grateful that he makes the trip. Priddis is a subject in a clinical trial that could lead to more effective treatment for people with Parkinson's disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system characterized by slowness, stiffness and shaking.

"Yes, I'm their guinea pig," said Priddis, a genial father of five and retired Air Force officer who has had Parkinson's for nearly half of his 53 years.

In addition to taking Sinemet, a standard Parkinson's medication, Priddis undergoes an increasingly common therapy called deep-brain stimulation. A few years ago, surgeons at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center implanted in Priddis' brain devices that produce electrical impulses that stimulate malfunctioning circuits in his brain.

Deep-brain stimulation already seems to be producing dramatic results in Priddis' life. He can walk faster and takes longer strides. His shaking is vastly diminished and he doesn't fall down nearly so often.

But questions remain about deep-brain stimulation and researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the two medical institutions involved in the clinical trial, hope that the study under way at San Francisco State's Physical Therapy Department will yield answers.

One of the key questions is whether apparent improvements in patients like Priddis can be quantitatively measured. To find out, Priddis undergoes what is known as a gait analysis in a specially equipped laboratory in the gym. Melinda Piper, a student in SF State's new doctoral program in physical therapy science, attaches plum-sized balls wrapped in silver reflective tape to 21 points on Priddis' bare arms and legs. As Priddis walks, infrared cameras record the movement of the reflective markers. A software program produces a three-dimensional analysis that tells researchers how fast Priddis is walking, the length of his stride and other things about the way he is moving.

Researchers also hope to find out whether better results are achieved when one area of the brain is stimulated over the other.

As Americans live longer, the incidence of Parkinson's in the population is expected to rise. Already, the disease affects about 1.2 million people in this country. Priddis said he doesn't necessarily expect the clinical trial will improve his own life. But if it helps Parkinson's sufferers in the future, his long trips to San Francisco State will have been worthwhile.

-- Anne Burke


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Last modified October 16, 2003, by the Office of Publications