Dr Natalie Allen

2007 grant recipient

Catherine GrangerDr Natalie Allen spent much of her childhood on the sporting field, her high school ambition to be a sports physiotherapist. However, while studying physiotherapy as an undergraduate, she soon realised the importance of exercise for people with chronic health conditions. This led her to enrol in the honours program, where under the supervision of now Associate Professor Colleen Canning and Professor Jennifer Alison, she undertook a project investigating the exercise capacity, respiratory function and gait of people with Parkinson’s disease. Natalie completed her degree with first class honours in 1995, and received the Australian Physiotherapy Association Prize for the most proficient graduand and the Physiotherapy Research Foundation Prize for the best research honours thesis in her year.

 

Research areas and findings

After nine years of clinical experience, predominantly in neurological rehabilitation, Natalie returned to the University of Sydney and enrolled in a PhD which focused on evaluating and exploring exercise interventions to reduce fall risk in people with Parkinson’s disease. The Physiotherapy Research Foundation provided funding for one of her PhD projects – a randomized controlled trial investigating the effect of a six-month exercise program on fall risk in people with Parkinson’s disease. This project found that participants who completed the exercise program had a 7% non-significant reduction in fall risk, as well as significant improvements in freezing of gait and timed sit to stand. This work was published in a leading international journal - Movement Disorders, and was selected by the Movement Disorders Society for use in their Internet Journal Continuing Medical Education program. It was also the subject of a platform presentation at the 2009 Australian Physiotherapy Association’s National Neurology Group Conference, where Natalie was awarded Best Presentation by a Student Researcher. Natalie’s PhD trial informed the design and implementation of a large, NHMRC-funded randomised controlled trial, led by Associate Professor Colleen Canning. This large trial has found that an exercise intervention targeting the remediable risk factors for falls in Parkinson’s disease, reduced falls in people with milder, but not more severe disease, and has been published in the leading international journal, Neurology.

Research impact on physiotherapy

Natalie completed her PhD in 2011 and is now working part time as an early career researcher and Lecturer at the University of Sydney. She has published 16 full-length papers in international peer-reviewed journals. Natalie’s work has influenced physiotherapy intervention for people with Parkinson’s disease through grass roots teaching of physiotherapy students and through presentations to clinicians, researchers and people living with Parkinson’s disease at numerous conferences, seminars, workshops and support group meetings. Parkinson’s disease research has come a long way in the last 20 years, and we now know that exercise is helpful for improving walking, balance and muscle strength, and is likely to reduce falls in at least some people with Parkinson’s. Despite this, many people with Parkinson’s disease are not referred for physiotherapy until they are in the later stages of the disease.

Important areas for development in physiotherapy

Natalie believes that now is the time for researchers and clinicians to be working together, to promote and evaluate early intervention and self-management programs for people with Parkinson’s disease. It seems likely that effective exercise programs, delivered early, may help people with Parkinson’s disease to maintain high levels of mobility for longer.