Professor Pedals Across Iowa to Test Benefits on Parkinson's Disease

This year, the world will be watching cyclist Lance Armstrong as he attempts to capture a sixth Tour de France.

This year's Pedaling for Parkinson's cycling team will be equally absorbed in the performance of its star team members, two Parkinson's disease patients from Atlanta, GA and San Jose, CA, as they make a 490-mile journey across Iowa, July 25-31, 2004 as part of the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI).

Unlike Armstrong's team, the Pedaling for Parkinson's team will monitor patients' performance with force transducers and a digitizer to determine the effects of exercise on the symptoms of the disease.

Last year, Parkinson's patient Cathy Frazier tackled the ride on a tandem bike, riding with her husband,Atlanta cycling coach Ralph Frazier, and Jay Alberts, a Georgia Tech professor of applied physiology specializing in Parkinson's research. After 464 miles, she and her Pedaling for Parkinson's team found they had not only spread the word about the disease, but also may have discovered a relationship between pedaling at a higher cadence and priming/driving the central nervous system of the Parkinson's patient. At the end of the ride, Frazier could write more clearly for one week.

This year, Alberts will scientifically test the symptoms of Frazier and new member Jim Wetherell to determine if the ride does indeed have a positive effect.

"Our goal is to motivate other Parkinson's patients that it is possible to lead an active lifestyle even with the disease," said Alberts. "Halfway through last year's ride, Cathy's symptoms were visibly improved. This year we plan to quantify motor performance to determine what movement parameters change as a result of this week of exercise."

Typically, a Parkinson's patient riding a bike maintains a cadence of around 50-60 revoultions-per-minute. However, a non-Parkinson's captain on a tandem bike can drive that cadence to over 90 RPMs. Pedaling at a higher cadence may prime or drive the central nervous system of the Parkinson's patient. A driving of the system may result in an increase in the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter that is lower than normal in Parkinson's) that in turn could account for the improved motor symptoms.

"Cycling is my way of showing Parkinson's disease it can't beat me," said Frazier who was diagnosed six years ago with the disease at the age of 43.

Frazier and 22 other team members will carry that message across Iowa this month with Pedaling for Parkinson's, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing patients and educating the public about the benefits of staying active after a diagnosis.

"I was told to give up cycling because Parkinson's was taking away my ability to balance," said Wetherell. "But with my love for cycling and a fear of my future, I made the decision to add a wheel rather than selling two, I bought a recumbent trike. That was five years and more than 30,000 miles ago."

"The data we gather will allow us to determine if the increase in pedaling rate leads to changes in motor functioning over a week of intense exercise," said Alberts, who is looking forward to the week on the bike. "Plus, we'll be passing at least 250 pie and ice cream stands. Who can refuse?"

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