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A Virtual Coach Spurs Patients With Parkinson's

Monday May 27, 2013

Ann Lukits

Wall Street Journal - People with Parkinson's disease walked markedly farther and faster after a month of daily motivational chats with a virtual exercise coach, according to a study in the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.

Virtual coaches are animated computer characters that simulate face-to-face conversations with people. The technology has been used in studies of healthy adults, but this is the first to involve patients with a neurological disorder, researchers said.

Walking is an important indicator of both disability and quality of life in people with Parkinson's, they said.

Twenty Boston residents in their mid-60s with mild-to-moderate Parkinson's disease were recruited. Participants took daily walks wearing a pedometer and spent five minutes a day talking to a virtual exercise coach called Tanya. The conversations took place on a tablet computer, varied daily and consisted of a social chat, check of the subject's progress and daily exercise tip. Subjects took two walking tests before and after the study, which assessed distance covered in six minutes and gait speed, respectively.

Average walking distance on the six-minute test improved from 1,508 feet to 1,588 feet over the 30-day study period. Normal gait speed improved from 3.9 to 4.1 feet per second and maximum gait speed increased from 5.5 feet to 5.8 feet per second. All changes were statistically significant and clinically meaningful, researchers said.

Virtual coaches, with their humanlike characteristics, have a unique ability to build social and emotional relationships, researchers said, and can help promote healthy behavioral changes in people with chronic illnesses.

Caveat: The study was a small Phase I clinical trial that didn't include a control group.

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