Photos courtesy of RIADPA | Runners start the 5K course at Goddard Park in East Greenwich, Rhode Island for the Annual Optimism Run/Walk to benefit Parkinson’s Disease

Last week, the American Parkinson’s Disease Association hosted their 20th annual Parkinson’s Optimism Walk and 5K at Goddard State Park in East Greenwich. While many different groups attended for different reasons, some of the most interesting people at the event came from the University of Rhode Island.

Leslie Mahler, an associate professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders and the director of the interdisciplinary neuroscience program on campus attended the walk and 5K for the eighth time last week.

“For me, I think this is my eighth year to be at the walk,” said Mahler. “It’s one of the major fundraisers for the Rhode Island chapter.”

Mahler has been involved with the Rhode Island American Parkinson Disease Association (RIAPDA) for many years, as her research has kept her ties with the organization closely knit. “My research interest in looking at what treatments work for people who have acquired neurological disorders,” said Mahler.

Mahler said that the walk is crucial to securing grants for people with Parkinson’s Disease to get the care that they need. “Because Parkinson’s Disease is so heterogeneous, and everybody who has it is a little different, it will also support people to try different kinds of therapy,” said Mahler. “So if they want to try a massage to feel better, or tai chi, acupuncture… If they want to see if it will help them.”

One of the ways that Mahler helps out is with various support groups. She has previously served on the board for the RIAPDA and now works as a support group leader in South County. “The RIAPDA has many support groups around the state,” said Mahler. “Ours is the South Country one… There are education symposiums, this October there’s the New England conference. So, for a small state, we’re pretty active for people with Parkinson’s disease.”

On campus, Mahler is assisted by Dara LoBuono, a third-year Ph.D. student. While her official field of study is in the Nutrition of Food Science department, she works closely with Parkinson’s patients. She also serves in an executive role in the RIAPDA, working as the secretary for the organization.

LoBuono was first introduced to the organization by way of her Master’s thesis project, joking that “course credit” was the catalyst to get her involved. However, she went on to say that getting involved made an immediate impact on her. “It was just such a warm, welcoming community,” said LoBuono. “It really felt that I could improve quality of life and there’s definitely nutrition concerns and dietary strategies that can help keep people with Parkinson’s independent.”

LoBuono and Mahler work together because of a unique phenomenon in Parkinson’s patients. Those who develop Parkinson’s often develop a larger appetite for sugar. Since LoBuono studies the nutritional field, and Mahler in communicative disorders, the two of them combine their work to give a multi-faceted education and therapy system to the patients called LOUD for LIFE. While LoBuono is able to give them quizzes on nutrition, Mahler works with their speaking and communicative skills, thereby creating a symbiotic relationship between the two fields. “It feels like a family,” said LoBuono.

Mahler wants students on campus to know that these opportunities, helping out these Parkinson’s patients, are open to all students. “We have a really vital program for people with Parkinson’s disease because its multifaceted,” said Mahler. “People can come and be involved however they want to be involved. And it’s interdisciplinary. At the same time that we’re providing services to people in the community, we’re also giving students an experiential learning opportunity to come together and work with people with neurological disorders.”