Could Irish dancing be the next medical frontier in the fight against Parkinson's disease?
Daniel Volpe thinks so.
And he knows a thing or two about both. He's head of the Parkinson's rehabilitation unit at St. John of God Hospital in Venice, as well as an accomplished musician.
According to the Irish Post, Volpe had a revelation while he was performing at an Irish dance hub back in 2010. A man who was obviously living with Parkinson's got on the dance floor. And, as the newspaper recounts, "the man who walked so unsteadily required no assistance to dance. Indeed, the man went through the moves effortlessly, as if he were a different person."
Irish dancing often involves keeping one's upper body and arms relatively stationary while the legs — particularly the feet — get extremely busy. It's sometimes likened to tap dancing.
Think, Riverdance — an Irish dance production that carried the ancient tradition to the world on its twirling, whirling legs.
The frequent changes in direction, along with measured step lengths mean an Irish dancer is always alternating weight from one leg to another.
You might think that a progressive nervous system disorder like Parkinson's would make such complex movements difficult, if not impossible.
But the man Volpe saw dancing made it seem effortless.
So when he returned to Italy, he donned his medical hat — and conducted a study published in BMC Geriatrics involving 24 Parkinson's patients. Dividing the group in half, his team administered conventional physiotherapy to 12 patients. The other contingent was taught to dance.
And the results, as you can see in this video of Parkinson's patients performing a jig, are impressive.
At the conclusion of the six-month trial, researchers noted the unlikely Irish dancing troupe edged out their counterparts in every category of bodily control. Physiotherapy was still effective in helping patients control their movements, but Irish dancing appeared even more so.
"Although improvements were made in both groups, the dance group showed superior results to standard physiotherapy in relation to freezing of gait, balance and motor disability," the researchers noted in the study.
Volpe theorizes that the music itself — a lilting rhythm with clear patterns — may help patients navigate the dance. Those patterns could allow the cerebral cortex to to bypass certain regions that control motor skills.
In a sense, patients feel the music, and that means Irish eyes — and Irish minds — are smiling.