NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Parkinson’s disease is a brain ailment that has affected celebrities from Muhammad Ali to Michael J. Fox and Linda Ronstadt.

As CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez reported, there are medications that can help – and patients have been exploring new treatments.

Bill Shepherd’s Parkinson’s disease started with a slight tremor in his index finger and has progressed to his arms.

“It starts to impact not just how your arm moves, but your ability to walk, or run, or do things that require more coordination or things that require more strength,” Shepherd said. “It starts to impact your balance over time.”

Shepherd’s walking can now be a little shaky at times, but he has not developed one of the hallmarks of Parkinson’s – freezing up while trying to walk.

“They feel that their feet are glued onto the ground. They can’t get their feet off the ground,” said Dr. Sunil Agrawal of the Columbia University School of Engineering. “Often, that’s a very debilitating situation, because now, you don’t have balance and control, so essentially, you fall down.”

To help unfreeze Parkinson’s patients, Agrawal is working with the neurology department at Columbia to develop shoes that can detect when a patient is about to freeze. A prototype shows sensors in the soles along with little vibrators taken from cellphones.

The idea is to deliver a stimulus to the patient – vibration, sounds or visual – that seems to jolt the Parkinson’s brain out of the freeze mode.

“I’ve been blessed with a very slow progression,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd’s slow progression might have been just how his disease evolves. But he has also been talking a Food and Drug Administration-approved blood pressure drug called Isradipine for five years as part of a clinical trial.

“The big concept is protecting the nerve cells is Parkinson’s that are dying off, so it is intended to be a neuro-protective agent, which we don’t have right now,” said Dr. Cheryl Waters of Columbia University Medical Center.

Todd Sherer, the chief executive officer of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, said Isradipinie is just one of many active research areas.

“We now have specific trials that are going on in people with Parkinson’s that are targeting some of the genetic causes of Parkinson’s, and also other trials that are targeting what we think are some of the cell-biological pathways that are involved in the degenerative process,” Sherer said.

A large clinical trial is just getting underway to prove Isradipine protects Parkinson’s brain cells.

Other drug trials try to smooth out the effects of L-DOPA, the mainstay Parkinson’s drug that also causes nasty side effects as it rises and falls in the blood.

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