Motor planning in Parkinson’s disease patients experiencing freezing of gait: The influence of cognitive load when approaching obstacles

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Freezing of gait (FOG) in Parkinson’s disease (PD) is typically assumed to be a pure motor deficit, although it is important to consider how an abrupt loss of gait automaticity might be associated with an overloaded central resource capacity. If resource capacity limits are a factor underlying FOG, then obstacle crossing may be particularly sensitive to dual task effects in eliciting FOG. Participants performed a dual task (auditory digit monitoring) in order to increase cognitive load during obstacle crossing. Forty-two non-demented participants (14 PD patients with FOG, 13 PD who do not freeze, and 14 age-matched healthy control participants) were required to walk and step over a horizontal obstacle set at 15% of the participants’ height. Kinematic data were split into two phases of their approach: early (farthest away from the obstacle), and late (just prior to the obstacle). Interestingly, step length variability and step time variability increased when PD patients with FOG performed the dual task, but only in the late phase prior to the obstacle (i.e. when closest to the obstacle). Additionally, immediately after crossing, freezers landed the lead foot abnormally close to the obstacle regardless of dual task condition, and also contacted the obstacle more frequently (planning errors). Strength of the dual task effect was associated with low general cognitive status, declined executive function, and inappropriate spatial planning, but only in the PD-FOG group. This study is the first to demonstrate that cognitive load differentially impacts planning of the final steps needed to avoid an obstacle in PD patients with freezing, but not non-freezers or healthy controls, suggesting specific neural networks associated with FOG behaviours.

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