Laser-equipped shoes help Parkinson’s patients take the next step

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Here’s an unexpected but pleasant little way tech might be able to improve a few lives: laser shoes. Yes, seriously. Shoes equipped with small laser emitters were shown in recent tests to help sufferers of Parkinson’s disease to walk normally.

One of the possible symptoms of Parkinson’s is what’s called gait freezing, where a person finds themselves unable to take a step despite willing themselves to walk forward. Being unable to move for the duration of the freeze (anything from a few seconds to over a minute) is inconvenient, but it can also cause a person to lose their balance and topple over.

Interestingly, during a freeze, a person may be able to break out of it by concentrating on something near their feet that they can step towards or over, such as a floorboard or a crack in the sidewalk. Of course, such a feature is not always present. So what if you could manifest one on demand?

That’s the idea behind the laser shoes, imagined by the University of Twente’s Murielle Ferraye: each one has a laser projection device mounted to the toe that produces a line about 18 inches ahead — a line towards which the user can then step. The laser turns off while the shoe is in motion, so it’s only ever the resting foot that projects a line.

You can see them in action here:

A study of 21 Parkinson’s patients found that the laser shoes reduced incidents of gait freezing by nearly half, and cut the duration of those freezes by more than half. Most of the patients said they would be happy to use the shoes, and didn’t mind that the line was projected even when they were not frozen. Future work, Ferraye explained in a university news release, will be aimed at activating the laser only when a freeze is detected.

The research was published this week in the journal Neurology.

Featured Image: University of Twente