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Well-Being in the Balance

UNLV researcher making strides in brain research.

Research  |  Jul 17, 2018  |  By Marian Alper

Physical therapy professor Merrill R. Landers demonstrates balance testing equipment at UNLV. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Sometimes, having a fear of falling can be more dangerous than the fall itself.

For people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disabilities, being overly cautious about standing and walking can lead to harmful health outcomes: a sedentary life style, loss of strength, social isolation, and depression. And, ironically, an increased risk of falls.

“Being afraid of falling can be the first step of a vicious downward cycle,” observes Merrill Landers, chair of UNLV’s physical therapy department and Cyrus Chung Ying Tang Foundation Professor. “It makes people avoid risky behaviors, and too often that means they don’t resume normal day-to-day activities.”

Landers is spearheading research that seeks to understand and correct this behavior in Parkinson’s patients.

Rebuilding Confidence

In Southern Nevada, there are more than 16,000 people who suffer from the disease. With the help of private funding from the Cyrus Chung Ying Tang Foundation, Landers and his team are exploring the effects of fall-avoidance behaviors and how to rebuild confidence in those who suffer from it, along with other important physiological and psychological research.

“Having the funding to conduct research will lead us to find evidence-based treatments faster,” says Landers. “In our Parkinson’s studies, for example, this funding has made it possible for us to complete studies in probably one-third the time it would otherwise take.”

Private funding is used to recruit study participants, cover travel expenses for those who can no longer drive, and enlist the help of qualified therapists and practitioners. It also supports student researchers and allows them to present their findings at major conferences. This not only fosters collaborations with colleagues around the globe but also raises UNLV’s profile as a research institution.

Crossover Potential

With additional resources, Landers and colleagues can delve deeper into research that has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of Nevadans not only with Parkinson’s disease, but also those impacted by Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive impairments.

For example, preliminary studies indicate that aerobic exercise early in a person’s life may help protect against Parkinson’s disease later in life. At UNLV, Landers and his team are researching how a chemical called “brain derived neurotrophic factor,” or BDNF, is related to exercise, and how it may help protect against development of Parkinson’s. So far, more than 75 people have taken part in the study.

Ultimately, says Landers, his research strives to meet a trifecta of critical goals:

  • improve the health of populations
  • reduce the per capita cost of health care
  • improve the patient experience of care