School of Health Professions

KUMC rehabilitation science student awarded funding for brainteaser study


Jul 17, 2012

Jason Rucker, PhD candidate in the KU department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science

By Andi Enns

Jason Rucker, PhD candidate in rehabilitation science and junior faculty member in the KU department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, has been named the 2013 recipient of the University of Kansas Biomedical Research Training Program stipend.

Rucker, also a junior investigator in the Georgia Holland Research Lab, is focusing his doctoral dissertation on geriatric adults with Type 2 diabetes and their ability to multitask.

“Multitasking can be as simple as walking and talking,” Rucker says. “And many older diabetics have trouble doing that.”

When a patient can’t multitask, it’s called a loss of executive function - also known as a loss of strategic thinking. People need to think strategically to plan their day, make a grocery list or even walk across a room. When they have trouble concentrating on these tasks, it’s more likely the patient will fall.

“Other populations, like those with Alzheimer’s, show these same symptoms,” Rucker says. “Once you strip away memory loss from Alzheimer’s, the next biggest element is loss of executive function.”

Rucker says he wants to find the link between diabetes and cognitive dysfunction so the decline can be prevented using physical therapy exercises. The KU Biomedical Research Training Program stipend will help provide compensation for patients undergoing clinical testing.

The patients will do a variety of brain teasers to measure their ability to multitask. Most of the tests will be memory or drawing tests, but a particular test will give the most useful data.

“It’s called the Walking And Remembering Test,” Rucker says.

Patients will walk across a force plate while recalling a list from memory. The plate measures the speed and gait of the patient and detects any asymmetry in their steps.

“Walking is normally a very symmetrical activity,” Rucker says. “When it’s not, your fall risk goes way up.”

Rucker says he became interested in this topic after working as a physical therapist in a hospital in Nebraska.

“I had worked in a sports clinic, but after seeing what I could do with geriatrics, it was a total revelation.”

One day, he says, he was working with a stoke patient. The man couldn’t even sit up when he came into Rucker’s ward. Over the course of two weeks, Rucker helped the man to strengthen his muscles and learn to move again.

“His sister was visiting from London,” Rucker says.

That day, his patient walked.

“She cried,” Rucker says. “She didn’t think he’d ever walk again.”

Rucker says that day had a large impact on his life.

“To see her reaction was just awesome. I knew then that I was in the right career.”

Soon after, Rucker came to the University of Kansas Medical Center for his master’s in physical therapy. After graduating in 2002, he came back for his doctoral degree.

“I always knew I wanted to come back and teach,” Rucker says. “I want to share this with students.”

Rucker says he’s known since he was in middle school that he wanted to be a professor someday- largely because his father taught business courses.

“He went through terminal cancer,” Rucker says. “And so I knew I wanted to do something with healthcare.”

Rucker is a primary instructor in orthopedic medicine and assists teaching neurology.

“In neurology class, we talk a lot about multitasking and executive function,” Rucker says.

He says many students take their own function for granted. Because they’re young, they don’t necessarily understand what a geriatric patient is going through.

“They’re still in invincibility mode,” Rucker says. “And they know they are, but it’s hard for them to understand what that means.”

Students leave Rucker’s classes with a better understanding of life with chronic cognitive disease and a greater desire to help others, he says.

“They don’t always realize how much they can do,” Rucker says. “Giving someone a degree of independence back, or helping them do something they love to do, is so important. And so rewarding.”

Rucker says he hopes to continue studying the effect of exercise on geriatric patients after his dissertation is completed.

“It is so great that KU supports research like this,” Rucker says. “I’m not a prominent researcher – I have some publications, but not many – so this support is tremendously helpful. And I am so grateful.”

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KU's programs are nationally recognized for excellence as a leader in education and research in the field. A unit of the KU School of Health Professions, the KU Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science is located on the University of Kansas Medical Center campus in Kansas City, Kansas. In collaboration with The University of Kansas Hospital adjacent to KUMC, students benefit from the opportunity to interact with a large number of health care professionals and leading researchers in real-world environments.

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