BACKGROUND: Several patients with Parkinson´s disease (PD) can walk normally along straight trajectories, and impairment in their stride length and cadence may not be easily discernible. Do obvious abnormalities occur in these high-functioning patients when more challenging trajectories are travelled, such as circular paths, which normally implicate a graded modulation in the duration of the interlimb gait cycle phases? METHODS: We compared a cohort of well-treated mildly to moderately affected PD patients to a group of age-matched healthy subjects (HS), by deliberately including HS spontaneously walking at the same speed of the patients with PD. All participants performed, in random order: linear and circular walking (clockwise and counter-clockwise) at self-selected speed. By means of pressure-sensitive insoles, we recorded walking speed, cadence, duration of single support, double support, swing phase, and stride time. Stride length-cadence relationships were built for linear and curved walking. Stride-to-stride variability of temporal gait parameters was also estimated. RESULTS: Walking speed, cadence or stride length were not different between PD and HS during linear walking. Speed, cadence and stride length diminished during curved walking in both groups, stride length more in PD than HS. In PD compared to HS, the stride length-cadence relationship was altered during curved walking. Duration of the double-support phase was also increased during curved walking, as was variability of the single support, swing phase and double support phase. CONCLUSION: The spatio-temporal gait pattern and variability are significantly modified in well-treated, high-functioning patients with PD walking along circular trajectories, even when they exhibit no changes in speed in straight-line walking. The increased variability of the gait phases during curved walking is an identifying characteristic of PD. We discuss our findings in term of interplay between control of balance and of locomotor progression: the former is challenged by curved trajectories even in high-functioning patients, while the latter may not be critically affected.
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