It was six years ago in 2009 that a colleague of mine had to cancel lunch with Dr. Jue Zhang, a visiting scientist from Peking University, and asked me to stand in as host. At the time I had no way of knowing how profoundly that lunch would affect the course of my career. What started as conversation between two scientists getting to know each other over Chinese food has grown into a robust and productive aging research collaboration.
As we talked during that first meeting, Dr. Zhang became increasingly interested in the work I was doing using technology to rehabilitate the balance problems that so many older adults have to face. Compromised balance is a key contributor to falls, which represent a huge challenge to safety, mobility and independence for this aging population.
By the time our lunch was over, Dr. Zhang had offered to help me conduct a pilot study within his laboratory in Beijing. Along with the rest of the world, China is facing an unprecedented demographic shift toward an aging population. Older adults are living longer and the culture of caring for seniors at home as they age is changing. As here in the U.S., the urgency to discover ways to keep seniors healthy, happy and independent is growing in China. The time was right for pooling brain power and resources between my team in Boston and Dr. Zhang’s team on the other side of the globe.
The pilot study we conducted was focused on an “out-of-the-box” idea of mine stemming from my doctoral research in older adults with peripheral neuropathy, or loss of feeling in the feet.It was crystal clear that peripheral neuropathy led to very poor balance and increased fall risk, but at the time, it was unclear why. Specifically, the scientific community knew very little about how sensory feedback from the feet is used by the brain to help maintain balance when walking. How, for instance, are you able to avoid falling when you unexpectedly step on snow-covered ground?
To begin answering this and other questions, we developed a device that can very accurately simulate foot pressures one experiences when walking. We attached the device to the feet of our study participants, simulating the sensation of walking even though they were lying completely motionless. At the same time, an MRI scanner took functional pictures of their brains. For the first time, we were able to see what their brains were up to as they “walked”—or at least experienced the sensation of walking. These observations provided never-before-seen insights into how one’s brain controls balance, and how aging and disease often alters this complex control system.
The success of that pilot study led to an “International Young Scientist” award and since, a larger grant from the National Science Foundation of China. And recently, we hit pay dirt by securing a seed grant from the Peking University Resources Group. With this grant, a new “Joint Laboratory” dedicated to our research will be constructed on the beautiful campus of Peking University, with state-of-the-art equipment and funding to recruit top research talent.
This is a terrific opportunity to push our work forward. My hope, along with my colleagues, is that we can continue to find new ways to keep us all safe and mobile as we age. With teams working on both sides of the planet, we’ll be tag-teaming across time zones to work around the clock to solve this matter of balance.