Home » Movie technology could play key role in diagnosing neurological diseases

Movie technology could play key role in diagnosing neurological diseases

Dennis Crawford struggled with tremors for eight years before receiving a diagnosis for Parkinson’s disease.

“I knew nothing about Parkinson’s. Absolutely nothing,” Mr Crawford said.

“The fact that I was diagnosed initially with functional tremor, but it was actually Parkinson’s … well the treatment could have been different.”

Now he is participating in a new research trial using video game and film industry technology, to help identify the early signs of the disease.

The new Human Intelligent Movement Analysis Centre (HIMAC) in Hobart features state-of-the-art CGI technology that can precisely track a person’s movement.

It’s similar to the technology used in films such as Avatar and the Avengers.

Dennis Crawford hopes it’ll mean better treatment outcomes for people with Parkinson’s.(
ABC News: Simon Farrell

But rather than creating a Hulk, Neurologist and HIMAC researcher Jane Alty is looking out for some of the earliest signs of Parkinson’s — slight tremors that may be barely noticeable to the human eye.

“There are little, very fine changes in movement that occur probably about 15 to 20 years before doctors can diagnose those conditions,” Dr Alty said.

“As a doctor, I make diagnoses of conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s based on what I can see as a human, but this technology pushes the boundaries of what we can see.

“What this is doing is using very similar technology to the film industry, which allows us to track human movements, but using them in a medical sense.”

An older man's hand with medical wires attached to two of his fingers.

Dennis Crawford’s hand during a Parkinson’s study in Hobart.(ABC News: Simon Farrell)

To show how the technology operates, the research team attach a helmet to Dennis’s head, fitted with small lights that detect and measure brain tissue activity.

Tiny markers are attached to his body, which is the same technology used in movies to turn actors into virtual avatars.

With the HIMAC research team tracking his movement, Dennis walks a short distance — surrounded by the 12 camera Vicon system — to create a simulated video avatar of his walk and brain activity.

An elderly man wears a helmet fitted with sensors. He is facing two masked researchers.

The technology includes an eye-tracking system that measures where a person looks and moves with millisecond precision.(ABC News: Simon Farrell)

Scientists hope to deepen understanding

There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s, but Dennis said he’s participating in the research in the hopes it’ll lead to better treatment outcomes for people with Parkinson’s.

“I hope that they can come to a clearer understanding of the mechanisms within the brain which cause the problems and also the treatments that can be applied to better address the problems,” Mr Crawford said.

Associate Professor Michele Callisaya from the University’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research said this allows researchers to measure how hard parts of the brain are working when walking or doing other activities.

“This can be useful to determine whether someone is needing to concentrate a lot on their walking, and potentially indicate if they are at a higher risk of falls,” Michele Callisaya said.

A mannequin head wearing a black helmet fitted with sensors sits in front of a computer screen with graphs and data on it.

The new centre uses the same technology used in video games to digitise body movements. (ABC News: Simon Farrell)

Rebecca St George from the University’s School of Psychological Sciences said this technology can help strengthen research outcomes.

“When brain imaging is combined with precise motion capture and muscle activity, we can start to really understand how the brain is controlling complex movements, and equally what subtle changes to our movements say about the function of our brain,” Dr St George said.

The centre also includes an eye-tracking system that measures where a person looks and moves with millisecond precision.

“The new eye tracking technology in HIMAC will help us undertake exciting world-class research in a variety of different neurological disorders,” Dr Alty said.

Putting Tasmania on the world map for neurological research

Parkinson’s is the fasted growing neurological disorder in the world and increases in prevalence with age.

Australia’s population of people aged over 85 will more than triple in the next 40 years, and Dr Alty said more research is crucial.

“Tasmania has the oldest demographic of all Australian states, we really need to be doing more research into these conditions that increase in prevalence with ageing,” Dr Alty said.

The new centre in Hobart is one of a few worldwide that are using this state-of-the-art technology to research these neurological conditions.

Funded through a $512,000 University of Tasmania Infrastructure Grant, scientists say it puts the state on the map for international research.

a computer image of a man walking

Computer image of Dennis Crawford walking during Parkinson’s study.(ABC News: Simon Farrell)

“What’s really fantastic is that we can align our assessment protocols with centres across the world,” Dr Alty said.

“We have collaborators in the UK, in Germany, America and we’re going to align the types of tests that we do here with those centres so we can take part in international research.”

HIMAC will be conducting a number of research trials — particularly for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia – starting from next year.

“Ultimately we hope that this increases our chances of attracting clinical trials to Tasmania, so that people can take part in clinical trials that open up new opportunities for new medications,” Dr Alty said.

“We’re going to be looking from children right through to older age, but also how can precisely measuring those movements tell us about different neurological disorders particularly.”