Maaike Goris has been selected as the first recipient of a Belgian PhD Fellowship focused on Parkinson’s research. The FWO-DPC PhD Fellowship aims to encourage more researchers at the start of their career to become interested in Parkinson’s disease with a view to increasing the scientific activity focused on this fast-growing neurodegenerative condition.
Launched in 2023 by the Demoucelle Parkinson Charity together with The Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO), the Fellowship programme began by inviting applications from researchers at Flemish universities. It will be expanded to include researchers at French-speaking universities.
Please could you introduce yourself?
Hi, I am Maaike Goris. I am 24 years old and I live in Leuven. In 2022, I completed my studies on Rehabilitation sciences and Physiotherapy with a specialization in Neurological Rehabilitation at KU Leuven. Currently, I am working as a PhD student within the Parkinson’s Rehabilitation Research Group (www.PRO-Labo.be) under supervision of Prof. Moran Gilat at KU Leuven.
I am a motivated and enthusiastic person who enjoys spending time with friends and family, running, exploring new things and travelling. In addition to my research interests, I am proud to be a member of the national synchronized ice-skating team ‘Team ice united’. Together with the team, we train for 10 hours a week to prepare for the upcoming international competitions, which is an unforgettable experience.
Please could you describe your PhD research project?
Freezing of Gait (FOG) is a highly disabling symptom of Parkinson’s disease (PD) whereby patients suddenly lose the ability to take a step while walking or turning, often expressed by patients as if their feet suddenly and unintentionally get glued to the floor. Concerningly, FOG forms the leading cause for falls in people with PD.
Current medical management is inadequate to alleviate FOG, so there is great need for improved treatments. A major bottleneck for treatment development is our inability to measure FOG in an accurate, fast, and cheap way given its episodic and heterogeneous nature. Indeed, most FOG occurs in the homes of patients, while the clinical gold-standard requires experts to score FOG episodes from videos of patients performing standardized gait tasks in the laboratory. This method is expensive and there are privacy concerns when videotaping patients. The future therefore lies in the technological assessment of FOG from wearable sensors in the homes of patients.
With this project, I want to address inadequate FOG assessment by first validating the use of Stickman animations versus video to overcome the privacy and mobility issues when scoring FOG in the home. Second, I will validate a new artificial intelligence based deep-learning algorithm to score FOG in the home and investigate its responsiveness towards medication and the different ways FOG can express itself. Third, I will determine the cortical signatures of FOG using ambulatory electroencephalography (EEG) that could provide for early FOG detection, even seconds before an actual freezing episode occurs. This will improve FOG detection and lead to new therapy development.
Can you explain how this project will contribute to our understanding of Parkinson’s disease?
This project has two main goals:
- Firstly, to make the detection of freezing episodes more accurate and time efficient. Finding a better way to detect freezing will allow the development of new treatment methods.
- Secondly, I will investigate what happens in the brain just before and during a freezing episode and how these neural signatures change when people emerge from an episode. This new insight will lead to a better understanding of the pathophysiology of freezing of gait in PD, that can then be used for future treatment methods, such as developing adaptive strategies to help patients overcome, or ideally prevent, the onset of freezing episodes.
Why do you want to research Parkinson’s disease?
As a neurological physical therapist my drive is always to help people with neurological conditions to maintain or improve daily functioning and have a good quality of life. During my clinical internships, I had the opportunity to work with numerous people with Parkinson’s disease struggling with freezing of gait. Witnessing their challenges ignited a strong desire to help them, especially after learning that effective treatments for this prevalent and highly debilitating symptom are surprisingly lacking. Furthermore, during this time, I came to realize that people with Parkinson’s disease are exceptionally appreciative and motivated. Working with them has been an immensely gratifying experience, and I am deeply committed to aiding them by merging my clinical and research expertise.
Have you had any personal experience with Parkinson’s patients and what impact has that had on you?
Fortunately, I am one of the few individuals who, prior to my studies, did not know anyone in my immediate circle with Parkinson’s disease. It was the immensely friendly patients that I met during my internship years that had such a profound impact on me. Observing how Parkinson’s disease affects so many people so profoundly, truly motivated me to delve deeper into this matter and explore what I can do best to help. Over the past year, during my research studies, I have had the privilege of getting to know many more people with Parkinson’s disease, each having left a lasting impression that further fuelled my motivation. I am thus very grateful to be able to conduct this research and continue my mission to help these patients.
What difference will it make to you and your research to receive this PhD Fellowship award?
I am deeply honoured to receive this award. It is a validation of the hard work my supervisory team and I have put into the design and execution of this project over the past period. Without the support of this grant, it would not have been possible to complete the entire project in all its facets. In particular, 2 out of the 3 work packages would not have been performed without this fellowship, so it truly makes a difference to myself and the work of our group as a whole.
Most importantly, it provides me with the opportunity to provide an accurate, fast, and cheap way to detect freezing that will stimulate the design of new treatment methods to help people with PD, which to me is all that matters!
And finally, what’s your favourite quote or piece of life advice?
When things get tough and overwhelming, I just try to break the big elephant into pieces, and then I can work step by step towards achieving my goal. It is a valuable piece of advice from my dad, and one that so far always holds true and that I will use in the coming years to complete this research.