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Brianne Spencer, Erica Siegel, Aaron Megazzi, Ashley Schempp present their research poster at the California Physical Therapy Association conference.  

DPT Professor and Students Use NASA Technology to Study Movement in Older Adults

Associate Professor Rolando Lazaro and some 3rd-year DPT students are studying what space travel can teach us about how to increase balance, mobility and strength in elderly patients by using an anti-gravity treadmill.

Lazaro, who specializes in geriatrics, is conducting a series of research studies to determine if aging adults who suffer from medical conditions like osteoarthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS) that limit their mobility can benefit from walking with the aid of a device that partially supports their body weight. 

"There are actually some benefits when you unweight the body," he said. "Not putting stress on your bones can decrease pain with mobility by minimizing strain to the muscles and joints."

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed the technology behind the treadmill for use in space flight training by simulating what happens to the body when gravity is no longer a factor.

AlterG, a Fremont company, brought the technology down to earth by building its Anti-Gravity Treadmill® for rehabilitation purposes in major medical centers, physical therapy clinics, and sports and fitness programs. Previous research focused on athletes and active young people recovering from injuries, and now the company is providing grants to Lazaro to study how the technology can work for older adults.

Walking speed is a predictor of survival for the elderly, according to Lazaro. Studies show that the slower the gait speed, the higher the risk for earlier death.

"And the more they don't move, the more they increase their risks for falls," explains Lazaro. "That's why you want to increase their confidence for walking."

Using an intervention called "lower body positive pressure," patients in the studies put on a specially designed pair of shorts that zip into the treadmill and inflate with air, lifting the body up. The machine can reduce the body's weight up to 80 percent.

Lazaro and his research assistants recently completed a pilot study, working with 10 healthy adults aged 60 to 85 who did not regularly exercise during 16 sessions over an eight-week period. They discovered improvements in balance, mobility, leg strength and the ability to stand from a sitting position.

"I'm really quite excited to find that it works for this population," said Lazaro.

The research team is currently applying the same protocol to five people with medical issues that affect balance, including stroke and Parkinson's disease. third study in the spring will focus on patients with MS in conjunction with Professor Gail Widener, who is researching how best to treat people with the debilitating nervous system disorder under a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

In September, Lazaro and his students presented the findings from their pilot study at the annual conference of the California Physical Therapy Association (CPTA). The students who worked on the project say their involvement in the research helped them develop their physical therapy skills.

"Dr. Lazaro allowed me to be involved with so many facets of the research process, such as data collection and performing various examination procedures. My favorite part was working directly with the subjects," said DPT student Aaron Megazzi.

Student Erica Siegel said developing the research poster with her classmates for the CPTA conference was a wonderful opportunity to critically appraise the study and defend their work to others in the field.

"The entire process has given me a glimpse into physical therapy research," said Siegel.  "I have a different appreciation of the effort entailed to further our profession to encompass more research since we rely heavily on evidence-based practice."