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UMd. team changes lives with treadmill and a webcam

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Local researchers have come up with a new way to help people who are recovering from strokes, dealing with Parkinson’s disease or just desperate to improve their balance.

“TreadSense” is the brainchild of a team from the University of Maryland that includes professors, PhD candidates, and one incredibly talented sophomore.

Think of it, in its simplest terms, as Wii Fit on steroids.

The research team started with a treadmill and the simple act of walking.

Kinesiology Professor Dr. John Jeka, who led the project, says they pondered the notion of using a treadmill not just for cardiovascular training, but for balance training as well.

They knew they had to find a way to rehab the brain so it would know how to send the proper signals to the muscles. And so they souped-up the treadmill with two web cams that would record movements, and developed software to translate those movements into images on a computer screen — providing patients with immediate feedback.

The most popular display shows a bull’s eye and a cursor.

“We train them [patients] to note that the cursor’s motion is a mirror representation of their own. If they move, the cursor moves,” says physical therapist and research team member Eric Anson.

Anson is using the new technology with his patients at Adventist Rehabilitation Hospital’s Silver Spring clinic. It is the first facility in the nation to use the device.

He says “TreadSense” may be a game changer because it works on balance while patients are walking. By contrast, the popular Wii Fit game trains only for balance control while standing.

Anson says the former is important because most falls occur when people are walking, or when they are rising to their feet to walk. He says some studies suggest that one third of people over 65 fall each year, and far too many sustain serious, even potentially fatal, injuries.

Team leader Jeka says “TreadSense” can be used as a rehab tool and also as a means to prevent injury in the first place. He says it could become a fixture at health clubs as baby boomers look for new ways to stay in shape as they age.

Jeka says improvements in web cam technology have made this innovation possible. That, and the computer genius of one University of Maryland underclassman.

Joseph Owen, 20, a computer science major and Montgomery Blair High School alum, is the current programmer for the project. He says he has gotten more out of it than he ever thought possible.

Owen says he expected to be doing some odd jobs around the kinesiology lab, just fixing a computer code here and there.

“I didn’t expect to be programming an entire physical therapy, rehab application that is going to be in use in a real gym,” he says.

And for the record, the University of Maryland team began its work four years ago. Long before the Wii Fit hit the market.

Jeka says they are looking forward to the day when “TreadSense” becomes standard equipment in rehab clinics, senior centers, gyms and even training sites, where elite athletes might jump on their specially equipped treadmill to improve their balance even further and get a competitive edge.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)