Amplifying Impact

Dr. David Escobar, left, and Dr. Benjamin Walter, center, demonstrate their robotic system for measuring rigidity associated with Parkinson’s disease. At right is research assistant Kevin Salipante, who oversaw design and construction of the robots. 

Photo: Annie O'Neill


Parkinson’s disease (PD) affects 10 million people worldwide, with 90,000 new cases diagnosed every year in the U.S. alone. This neurodegenerative disorder causes parts of the brain to deteriorate, leading to tremors, slowed movements and rigidity, among other symptoms. There is no cure for PD, but numerous treatment options are available.

You never get ideas off the ground until you have seed money. Philanthropy allows investigators to rapidly get ideas to proof of concept, where you can then get more funding for later development, so the impact of donors actually gets amplified.

Benjamin Walter, MD
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Cleveland Clinic’s CATALYST GRANTS pool donations to fund the brightest ideas from our caregivers to improve patient outcomes and experiences. To date, more than 300 grants have been awarded, representing a total of $14.1 million in support.


Effective treatments require accurate measurements, and some aspects of PD can be gauged more precisely than others. Using sensors, for instance, tremors and slowed movements can be assessed with a high degree of accuracy. But the “white whale” is the measurement of rigidity, which affects a majority of patients with PD. To evaluate inflexible muscles that prevent relaxation, examiners typically manipulate joints and rate them on a five-point scale, subject to human error.


A $99,000 Catalyst Grant was awarded to a team led by David Escobar, PhD, for the development of a pair of robotic systems to objectively quantify rigidity in patients with PD. Torque sensors are used to measure rigidity — one system evaluates the elbow; the other system evaluates the wrist. The units are adjustable and portable, allowing for easy setup in a variety of settings. “Our methodology will make it possible for clinicians to systematically tune therapies to increase efficiency and improve outcomes,” says Dr. Escobar, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Neural Dynamics and Modulation Lab. “It also will enable clinical researchers to advance the development of new therapies.” 


The robots built by Dr. Escobar and his colleagues with philanthropic funding via a Catalyst Grant are part of a larger project that led to a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Going forward, researchers will seek to understand how deep brain stimulation, adjusted based on an individual’s neurophysiological signals, alters rigidity and slowness of movement in patients with PD. The hope is that better measurements will lead to better treatments. “This means getting treatments to market faster,” says co-investigator Benjamin Walter, MD, a Cleveland Clinic neurologist. “If you have only a crude rating scale, you have to measure a lot more patients to see if a treatment works. With better measurements, we can see results faster.”