Making waves through lifesaving research

Professor Helen Dawes was named as one of the Nation’s Lifesavers this year in recognition of her research to improve access to exercise for those with long-term conditions. Her work is directly benefiting children and adults, both in the UK and around the world, with disorders including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and autism. In this issue of Observe, we discover the impact of Professor Dawes’ pioneering research and a rowing adventure which is providing new insights into life with Parkinson’s.

The prospect of being in a four-person crew rowing across the Indian Ocean is not something many of us would relish. To endure the 3,600 mile journey whilst also living with the effects of Parkinson’s would be all the more remarkable.

This was the challenge taken on by Robin Buttery who had been diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease just before his 44th birthday. Robin’s successful completion of the grueling 71-day challenge last year was the basis for the latest innovative research project led by Professor Helen Dawes and colleagues in the Movement Science Group based at Oxford Brookes.

It’s about working with individuals and trying to get the best out of them

Professor Dawes’ work is highly regarded for improving understanding of, and access to, exercise for adults and children with long-term conditions and disabilities. When the chance to gain an academic insight into the impacts of extreme exercise on Parkinson’s arose, it was an opportunity not to be missed.

Before moving into her area of academic expertise, Professor Dawes had previously worked with athletes in elite sport and so there was a cross-over with this latest project.

“I came from a background of what people could do, rather than what they couldn’t do”, Professor Dawes explains. This was an important element when monitoring Robin before, during and after his Indian Ocean Row. “The concepts are the same really. It’s about working with individuals and trying to get the best out of them.”


Everyone is now encouraged to exercise

Professor Dawes’ approach is in contrast to the then-conventional thinking she encountered when she began her research on conditions like Parkinson’s.

“When I started in the area, people with conditions such as these were actually told to rest. Exercise was thought of as bad for them. I think we’ve gone 180 degrees now, whereby everyone is now encouraged to exercise.

“I can remember running a focus group for people with Parkinson’s 12 years ago and nobody was interested in exercise. It was all about the medication, whereas now you can see we’ve come to a very different place which is very exciting.”

When he got onto dry land, he was actually better at walking than the other guys on the boat

Professor Dawes explains that although there is now “evidence that exercise is good for Parkinson’s, we still don’t quite know what the best amount is. I think most people are actually interested in ‘how little can I do?’, but people are also interested in knowing ‘can I do too much?'”

Working with Robin was particularly unique due to his exercise levels before embarking on the ocean row. “Robin was quite special as he wasn’t that into exercise when we started out, so it gave us this fantastic opportunity to look at the impact of both the training programme, but also then the row and how he did.” So what surprised Professor Dawes from the team’s initial findings once Robin had completed the challenge?

“The really interesting thing was when he got onto dry land, he was actually better at walking than the other guys on the boat. So it seems to have had a translational effect neurologically.”

Robin wanted to make a difference, and he has

Professor Dawes’ research into Robin’s ocean row is helping to have real-world impact for the millions of people living with long-term conditions. It was therefore entirely fitting that her work was recognised as part of Universities UK’s championing of research excellence in 2019. Professor Dawes was named as one of the Nation’s Lifesavers and the research project with Robin was a key aspect of the accolade.

Professor Dawes explains that “a third of us as adults will be living with at least one long-term condition and I think this project has put across a message of what you can do. Robin wanted to make a difference, and he has. He was really interested in the science. It’s a long way to go for the science, but it was a good thing to do.”

We’re really lucky here at Oxford Brookes as we can bring different areas of research together

More detailed findings from the study into Robin’s row are being developed and there are many related areas which Professor Dawes is keen to explore.

“We’re really lucky here at Oxford Brookes as we can bring different areas of research together. We can do brain imaging and cell work alongside the work of finding out how people are and how they feel and are functioning. That’s what we’re doing now with a number of studies trying to work out optimal levels of exercise.”

Professor Dawes’ team will be supporting two further Indian Ocean rows in 2020 with further research into the effects on those living with both Parkinson’s and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’re not getting everyone to row across oceans, although I’m getting lots of phone calls as people are really keen!”

Words: Matthew Butler

Watch the video of Robin’s epic row – and Helen’s ‘lifesaving’ research

Read other research highlights from 2019

Michael McGrath was the first person with a disability to reach both the North and South poles – and is using his remarkable experiences to enrich the lives of young people with Muscular Dystrophy