Parkinson's disease currently affects over 500.000 Europeans, and the proportion of sufferers is continually growing due to the aging of the population as a whole. As well as the obvious medical problems associated with the condition, it is also one of the most costly brain disorders known, with a German study suggesting that annual therapy costs total around 6000 euro per patient.
Parkinson's disease is a movement dysfunction. The PARREHA project, supported by 1,7 million euro under the IST section of the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) and co-funded by the Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), has developed a set of information technology tools to assist the rehabilitation of Parkinson's patients suffering mobility problems. In order to build the PARREHA system, four engineering companies, the University of Athens, a European Parkinson's association (EuroPARK) and the European Union's JRC have formed a consortium, managed by Oxford Computer Consultants Ltd.
Audio and visual stimulation has been known to suddenly relieve sufferers of all their symptoms, a phenomenon known as "Kinesia Paradoxa" and still not completely understood. Through the use of personalised virtual reality glasses, virtual exercise and training systems, and personalised remote consultation, the PARREHA project has developed tools that can significantly improve on the results of traditional rehabilitation methods.
Prototypes of the PARREHA system have shown impressive results in helping lethargic patients become significantly more active, and the project consortium members are now aiming to market the results on a commercial basis. The system runs from a normal PC and offers virtual reality exercises, audio-visual feedback and video-conferencing. The intention is to provide a means by which people with Parkinson's disease can remotely access health care professionals, assess their motor performance and enjoy appropriate and interesting exercises.
A patient at home or in a local clinic could for instance link to a medical specialist at an agreed time to have a TV-quality video-conferencing link so both parties can see and speak to each other as normally as possible. The specialist can ask the patient to perform arbitrary exercises and can monitor the patient's performance through the video-conferencing system. If the patient wears a light "headset", it is possible to provide audio-visual cues to aid motion such as stripes on the floor or practise moving in difficult situations such as through doorways or crowds.
The video-conferencing link provided by PARREHA can be used on its own for clinic follow-up, home support and remote therapy. The audio software used in the provision of visual cues also supports speech therapy by offering such techniques as providing a delayed echo or feeding back the user's voice at a higher or lower pitch. PARREHA incorporates a user interface designed for people with Parkinson's disease and a database for patient records.
The EuroPa network is an association of clinical centres from 11 countries including Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and was set up with 1,7 million euro in funding under the Life Quality section of FP5. The project started in December 2001. During the three-year funding period EuroPa aims to establish the infrastructure of a European clinical research network using modern Internet technology.
The main aim of the network is the creation of a clinical trials network which will establish a central patient registry to help find patients who fit the necessary clinical profile for a particular trial. Medical information will be stored under pseudonyms to protect patient privacy, and combining the knowledge and resources of all project partners in a database of precise medical information will speed up and improve research into Parkinson's.
Members of EuroPa are neurologists with a special focus on movement disorders like Parkinson's disease. They are experienced scientists with a particular expertise in clinical research. By bundling the experience and resources of clinical centres in various European countries, the EuroPa network will provide excellent foundations for multi-centre studies aimed at improving diagnosis and therapy of Parkinson's disease. The EuroPa research centres are qualified for conducting industry-sponsored clinical trials, self-initialised research projects as well as epidemiological research. Furthermore, the network supports comparative studies, such as the analysis of health care strategies in all participating countries.
After the end of the initial European Union funding period, which is due to end in September 2004, the network will be transformed into a selfsufficient and independent organisation. Specialists from other clinics and European countries will then be able to join the network and increase its scope and collaboration. EuroPa will both promote clinical research on Parkinson's disease and help to accelerate the standardisation of diagnostic and therapeutic strategies and the spread of good clinical practice.
The Commission intends to fund more projects focusing on brain research under the Sixth Framework Programme, with conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's being a high priority. The Commission has also the intention, along with the European Parliament, to organise a conference to discuss how to build a true European Brain Research Area. More information on the projects can be found at the PARREHA Web site and the EuroPa Web site.