Overcoming my fear of spandex in the name of medical research

February 17, 2014

By Denice Bruce

watch Life as a modelThe spandex jumpsuit almost stopped me cold.

I'm intrigued by all the research that happens at my place of employment. And I've been known to do things for the betterment of humankind from time to time. So when KU Medical Center's Landon Center on Aging called for volunteers for a motion study to aid in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, I was all in.

Until I read, "Participants will wear a one-piece spandex jumpsuit."

Yikes. I describe my vision of hell as a place where there's no popcorn, where Thomas Kinkade's work passes for art, and where I have to see myself in spandex.

But I risked it and signed on. And I'm so glad I did.

Jumpsuit aside, it was a mostly fun and entirely fascinating two hours. The goal of the study is to observe how people without MS move and balance themselves, so researchers can determine which experimental treatments for the disease might work to improve patients' mobility.

Balance and ease of motion are big problems for most people with MS, since it's a disease that disrupts the central nervous system. Not surprisingly, most of the tasks I was asked to do were centered around walking, and my ability to balance or recover my balance in changing conditions.

I should mention that all these tasks were done while I was wearing little quarter-sized electronic sensors over my legs ... and other areas that I'd typically prefer go unnoticed and unrecorded. The sensors enabled the researchers to record even the slightest movement I made through high-speed infrared cameras, and create a three-dimensional model of me.

This would be a good time to point out that there were no easily-accessible mirrors in the lab. I do not believe this is accidental.

For a short time, I was the star of my own computerized animation as I watched my cyber-self dance and kick. That was cool, spandex or no spandex, and will without question be the only modeling experience I'll ever have.

The researchers also tested my cognitive functioning by making me count backwards by three while walking, standing with my eyes closed, or balancing on a foam pad that resembled a floating swimming pool mat.

I can balance like a champ, but backwards counting is not my strong suit. Frontwards counting isn't always a slam dunk for me. Though both lab assistants were courteous and accommodating, I recall saying, "I hate you both just a little bit," during the math session. They tried to downplay the fact that I'm a number numbskull by interspersing little tidbits of wildlife trivia (I now know how fast a cheetah runs, and the G-force of a diving falcon), but my ego took a hit.

My final activity involved standing on a treadmill that started up without warning. This may sound diabolical, but it was actually a relief after that backwards counting.

The idea is to see how a healthy person recovers their balance, to provide a baseline for treating the MS patient. I was able to recover by momentarily grasping the attached hand rails. A patient with MS would have been fitted with a safety harness in order for the same activity to be executed.

The Landon Center's study is ongoing. They need healthy subjects who are gender and age matches for the patients with MS. Female volunteers are in particular demand, since MS is a disease that disproportionately affects women. I know women with MS, and the idea that my morning of balancing and counting (poorly) might someday help them is both gratifying and inspiring.

So, if you've ever wanted to model, now's your chance. Spandex and higher math aside ... it's two hours very well-spent.

KU School of Medicine–Wichita
Last modified: Nov 10, 2015