Parkinson's disease sufferer who can't walk stuns doctors by cycling 50 miles

Neurologist hopes that discovery of similar cases can lead to breakthrough in treatment of condition

by Simon_MacMichael   April 6, 2010  

UMC St Radboud study centre (copyright UMC St Rabdoud:Wikimedia Commons).jpg

A doctor in the Netherlands who specialises in treating Parkinson’s disease was astounded to learn that a patient who is unable to walk because of the condition regularly undertakes bike rides of up to 50 miles without problem.

After the doctor published his findings in the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors elsewhere in the world came forward with similar tales regarding patients suffering from the disease who are able to ride bikes or ice skate.

Medical experts believe that the phenomenon may be linked to the way in which the brain stores specific memories, and that knowledge of it may lead to a breakthrough in treating the disease and help slow down its onset, according to a report by Australia’s ABC News.

Professor Bas Bloem, a neurologist at the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, said that the 58-year-old patient was unable to walk. "He had freezing of gait - the mysterious phenomenon where the people really feel as if their feet are glued to the floor," explained Professor Bloem.

"This man told me he'd been on his bicycle for like 50 miles just the other day and that he was doing this on a regular basis and I said, 'you know that is impossible, you can't possibly ride a bike'," he added.

"And he said, 'Yeah, yeah I can ride a bike'."

ABC News said that Professor Bloem had video footage of the man looking happy and in control of his bike as he pedaled around the hospital car park, but when he got of, his symptoms came back and he was unable to walk.

When he learnt of the patient’s ability to ride a bike, Professor Bloem asked 20 other people suffering severe effects from Parkinson’s disease whether they could ride a bike, and learnt that all of them were able to do so.

Professor Bloem thinks that the phenomenon may be due to a different part of the brain being used to store information regarding riding a bike to that used for remembering how to walk.

"Or, perhaps, patients when they cycle are able to explore other areas of the brain that are still healthy in Parkinson's disease in order to support the rhythmic movements of their feet," he added.

"We may use this observation to provide a nice way to exercise patients with Parkinson's disease,” continued Professor Bloem.

"We know that these patients tend to become immobilised in the course of their disease because of their physical problems, and this is really bad news for them because being immobile deprives you of your social contacts but it also increases the risk of, say, strokes or cardiovascular disease," he said.

Following publication of his finsings, Professor Bloem learnt of other cases from around the world where patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease were able to move unimpeded in specific circumstances.

"I've received a beautiful email from Canada from a daughter of a patient who said, 'My mother was unable to walk but she could ice skate perfectly well' and I've had numerous more examples of unexpected abilities to move," he explained.

Professor Bloem continued: "I think what we as doctors should do much more is listen to our patients and explore the unique opportunities that patients have found themselves in order to make themselves move better and actually build this into our therapeutic arsenal."

He is now hopeful that the onset of Parkinson’s disease can be slowed down through exercise, as happens in rats, and around $1 million has been set aside for a clinical trial, with results due by the end of 2011.