Alumna connection

For one alumna, the University of Delaware’s recent Alumni Weekend provided the perfect time to support her alma mater. Jodi Cianci, a member of the Class of 1988, presented a check for $18,000 from her family’s nonprofit organization to Chris Knight, associate professor of kinesiology and applied physiology, for his research on Parkinson’s disease.

The presentation, held June 5 at the start of Alumni Weekend, is part of a continuing collaboration between Cianci’s family nonprofit, Shake It Off Inc., and Knight’s laboratory in UD’s Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology.

“Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I have found that exercise has made the biggest difference in my symptoms of everything I’ve tried,” said Cianci, who was diagnosed   in 2008. “I’m an attorney so I’m all about evidence and proof. I want to see the research that explains why exercise has such an effect on fine motor skills, mobility and other Parkinson’s issues.

“When we found out that Chris Knight was doing exactly that research right here at UD, it became a no-brainer for the Shake It Off Foundation to support his work,” she said.

Knight and his team test the effects of speed-work and functional conditioning exercises, such as work with medicine balls and the TRX system, on individuals with movement disorders like Parkinson’s.

“This is like developing a population-specific version of CrossFit that may help to slow the progression of disease,” Knight said. “We want to focus more on exercise concepts like speed and function than on specific modes of exercise like bicycling vs. dancing.  We focus on how quickly the nervous system can activate muscles, to understand and fight the symptom of bradykinesia.”

Bradykinesia is the slowed execution of movement associated with Parkinson’s and is a hallmark symptom of the disease.

“If you think of exercise as medicine, you might expect some side effects,” Knight said. “Fortunately with exercise, the side effects are positive. Some of the bicycle-based speed work we’re testing seems to benefit Parkinson’s symptoms besides just bradykinesia. Donations like this one from Shake It Off allow us to test exercise strategies we couldn’t otherwise explore.”

Knight’s lab is now partnering with researchers from the newly formed Center for Assessment Research and Translation, which specializes in the assessment of human cognition, emotion, behavior and quality of life. Matthew Cohen of the center said, “We are very excited to work with Dr. Knight to study how movement and cognition are interrelated and how exercise may improve each.”

Cianci and her husband, Christopher, founder of the nonprofit organization, and their team at Shake It Off hold fundraising events, including a 5K Run/Walk at the Philadelphia Zoo, to support Parkinson’s research. Their next event is a Rock ‘n’ Roll Bike Ride on Oct. 17.

The Ciancis presented the check on June 5 as Blue Hens flocked to Newark for Alumni Weekend celebrations. “This is the third donation from Shake It Off to my lab,” Knight said. “It is really special when a research lab like ours has a direct connection to the community.”

Michael Smith, director of strategic initiatives for UD’s College of Health Sciences, commended Knight and the Ciancis for their collaborative efforts.

“We are always thrilled to have the chance to partner with alumni,” Smith said. “Seeing Jodi pull in the Shake It Off Foundation to engage in and support Dr. Knight’s research is the best start to Alumni Weekend that we could ask for.”

For more information about Knight’s research or to get involved as a participant, please email caknight@udel.edu or call 302-831-6175.

Article by Sarah LaFave

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