Canadian researchers are opening the door on what could be a new approach in rehabilitating patients unable to walk safely on their own due to Parkinson’s disease.

It is estimated that up to 50 per cent of Parkinson’s patients lose the ability to walk normally because of the disease. Many abruptly stop mid-step, triggering the risk of falls. Others have slow and awkward gaits. Because there is no existing treatment for the condition, many of those patients become wheelchair-bound or bedridden.

Gail Jardine’s condition hadn’t progressed that far, but she knows the problem well. Parkinson’s left the 66-year-old Kitchener, Ont., resident unable to walk steadily without assistance. Several times a day, she would experience what she describes as “freezing” – a sudden inability to move her feet while walking.

“I fell a lot … it could be five times a day,” she told CTV News.

The “freezing” left her unable to enjoy going for a walk or playing with her grandchildren. She quit her job and relied on her husband to handle most of the housework.

Over the last two months, though, Jardine has found her footing – thanks to an electrical stimulator implanted near her spine and a remote control that lets her control the current sent through the stimulator.

“I can now go around the house without a cane. My self-confidence is coming back, and I can do things like go to the mall or go out for dinner,” she said.

Jardine is among 15 patients who are part of research in London, Ont., testing the potential of electrical signals to override their disease.

The theory is that the electrical stimulation overrides the signals being sent to the spine by Parkinson’s disease, giving patients a chance to regain their mobility.

“We’re … turning up the volume of what is going through the spinal cord to the brain, which may be awakening the motor system,” Dr. Mandar Jog, a neurologist at the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ont., said in an interview.

As Western University neurosurgeon Dr. Andrew Parrent, who is part of the study, explains it, a wire is threaded in the dorsal area of the spine, and attached to an stimulator. The patient is given what is essentially a remote control device that can turn the electricity on or off, and dial the strength up or down.

Doctors also use computer tracking devices to tailor the stimulation to the walking problems unique to each patient.

Researchers are finding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, different patients react to different levels of stimulation. The researchers report few complications or side effects and say that of the first five patients implanted in the first phase of the study, three continue to use the device. Two stopped using it because their Parkinson’s worsened to where walking at all left them at risk.

“I am pleased to read the promising results seen in this small-scale pilot study by Mander Jog and it may have the potential to improve quality of life of people living with Parkinson's,” Parkinson Canada CEO Joyce Gordon said.

The second study is now underway and has treated 10 patients so far – all of whom are unresponsive to Levodopa, the standard medication for Parkinson’s. Researchers hope to recruit another 10 to test the device.

A number of patients in the Canadian study have reported similar results to Jardine’s, with the treatment helping restore them to near their normal levels of mobility.

“[We have] patients coming back saying ‘You’ve changed my life, I’m not falling, I’m not afraid of being able to be who I am,’” Jog said

“This is what we live for – to make sure that we have discoveries that directly go from our bench to our bedside. That couldn’t be more gratifying.”