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Taming tremors

Donor funding supports the research and development of a wearable device to control Parkinson’s tremors

by Krista Habermehl, MA'05 | August 11, 2015

Taming tremors
Thanks to donor support, a Western Engineering professor is working on developing a wearable hand brace, just like a glove, that effectively controls tremors without restricting voluntary motion. Drawing is an artist rendering only.

A hallmark of Parkinson’s disease – a progressive neurodegenerative condition that affects the voluntary movement of nearly 100,000 Canadians – is tremors.

Materializing most often when a Parkinson’s patient’s hand (or less commonly foot, jaw or face) is at rest, the tremor can present as a slight uncontrolled movement or a more substantial motion depending on the patient’s physical and mental state, as well as the progression of the disease.

To mitigate the impact of tremor on the lives of Parkinson’s patients, Western Engineering Assistant Professor Ana Luisa Trejos, PhD’12, is working on developing a wearable hand brace, just like a glove, that effectively controls tremors without restricting voluntary motion.

“As the disease progresses, tremors can get to a point where patients can’t perform daily activities. It can be very difficult and embarrassing for them,” says Trejos, who is working with Michael Naish, associate professor and director of mechatronic systems engineering at Western, and Dr. Mary Jenkins, associate professor with the Movement Disorders Clinic at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, on this particular project. “The glove we are developing would give patients control over those involuntary tremors.”

Assistant Professor Ana Luisa Trejos, PhD’12, Western Engineering.

Trejos’ research is being supported, in part, by funding from the Peter C. Maurice Research Fellowship in Biomedical Engineering. She is the first recipient of this fellowship, which provides a total of $15,000 per year for a two-year term for an early to mid-career faculty member who shows promise of developing a new technology to support health care needs.

Every two years, a new recipient will be selected by a committee comprised of the deans of the faculties of Engineering, the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Health Sciences, allowing for the support of a wide variety of research projects.

The nearly $350,000 in funding to create this endowed fellowship was provided by Western Engineering alumnus and retired Canada Trust CEO Peter Maurice, BESc’60, who believes in the importance of empowering and enabling young, innovative researchers to make a significant impact on society.

“I believe positive change comes from the bottom up and that many breakthroughs happen for young researchers who have a fresh, different view of the world,” says Mr. Maurice. Although an engineer by trade, Mr. Maurice transitioned into the business world a few years out of school by following his interests and choosing challenges over safe bets.

“Engineers are very flexible,” he says. “My degree gave me the confidence that I could tackle most problems if I just thought them through. I still feel that way.”

When Mr. Maurice moved back to London, Ont. in the early 90s after many years in the Toronto business world, he says he was extremely interested in economic development and eager to move London forward. He was instrumental in the creation of the London Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) and saw promise in the growth of robotic surgery advancements. In particular, he became intrigued by the synergies between the fields of engineering and health care.

It’s in the field of biomedical engineering, where researchers like Trejos are making tangible technological advancements that improve patients’ quality of life, that Mr. Maurice feels he can make the biggest impact with his support.

“I plan to make more contributions to Western in support of these kinds of awards,” says Mr. Maurice. “This is a vehicle to put support into the hands of promising, young researchers who can make a difference – at a time in their careers when it can be hard to secure funding.”

Andrew Hrymak, dean of Western Engineering, says the faculty is extremely grateful to Mr. Maurice for his continued commitment and support of faculty fellowships. “His contribution to Western will allow Trejos and her team to make a significant impact on society and the health-care profession as a whole.”

Trejos and her colleagues are currently in the data-collection phase of the research project, which involves placing sensors on patients’ hands and tracking the breadth of voluntary and involuntary movements that they will then use to create a simulation to guide the development of the brace system. In about two years time, Trejos expects to have a prototype of the brace to test with Parkinson’s patients.

“I see the people who suffer, or have suffered, from tremors. Tremor causes so much suffering,” says Trejos. “While this is a really interesting problem to solve from an engineering perspective, it’s also gratifying to see how you are helping people, how you are making a difference in their lives.”

Once developed, the brace will provide Parkinson’s patients with a third treatment option – alongside or independently of drugs and surgery – and can be adapted to diminish the impact on non Parkinsonian tremor sufferers as well.

For more information about supporting Western Engineering, or to make a gift, please contact Virginia Daugharty, alumni and development officer, Faculty of Engineering (519.661.4209 or vdaughar@uwo.ca).


This article appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of Impact Western
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