November 26, 2023
Coloradans with neurodegenerative diseases turn to pingpong for rehabilitation. Scientists are paying attention
Mark Lauterbach was leaving a brewery in Fort Collins earlier this year when he found himself being pelted by hail. Instinctively, he took off running toward his car. When he made it, he burst into tears. “I felt like Forrest Gump,” Lauterbach said. “I ran, and I just cried. It’s been incredible.” The 58-year-old, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis eight years ago, thought his running days were long over. But playing pingpong, he said, had brought back the gift of running. Lauterbach credits table Tennis for a vast improvement in his overall mobility. The Colorado-based program he participates in is now being researched by scientists investigating the link between neurodegenerative conditions and the game often associated with parents’ basements. After his diagnosis, Lauterbach dealt with neuropathy along the right side of his body that rendered the movement of his arm, hand, leg and foot difficult. He developed balance problems and could no longer run or ride his bike around Fort Collins. But about a year ago, Lauterbach received an email from the Multiple Sclerosis Society about a pingpong group established to help people with neurodegenerative diseases like MS, Parkinson’s and dementia. The NeuroPong program, led by founder and CEO Antonio Barbera, marries medicine with the love of the game. Barbera brings his 31 years as a physician — interrupted by an MS diagnosis in 2017 — while 27-year-old Peruvian table tennis champion Francesca Vargas provides the pingpong expertise as head coach and fellow MS patient. After about three months of sessions inside a Fort Collins church gymnasium under the tutelage of Barbera and Vargas, Lauterbach began regaining his balance and learning actual pingpong technique. Researchers at the Movement Disorders Center on the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus were so intrigued by the anecdotal success stories they heard that they began studying the NeuroPong players’ symptoms and tracking their improvements for their research. “Table tennis is not a miracle,” Barbera said. “The paddle is not a miracle. What is magic is your brain.” Barbera, a gynecologist for more than 30 years, lost his ability to work after his MS hindered control of his right arm and leg. He also experienced chest tightness, an uncomfortable feeling Barbera likened to an elephant sitting on his torso. In 2019, Barbera was playing pingpong in his garage with his son when he noticed something. “It was like the elephant was sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, leaving me alone,” he said. Barbera felt better when he played the tabletop game, but the former physician wanted the backing of science to better understand why. He consulted neurologists, physical therapists and scientists to learn more about how and whether pingpong might be an ideal form of rehabilitation for people with neurodegenerative diseases. The motor function, quick decision-making, hand-eye coordination and side-to-side movement involved in table tennis could be a perfect storm for boosting cognitive function, he thought. Barbera founded NeuroPong in 2021. Now, he oversees the program with about 60 players between Boulder and Fort Collins sessions. Players come in various skill levels. Some have trouble walking and standing. Some use a wheelchair. Others have tremors or little control over their limbs, Barbera said. Many have never before picked up a paddle. Players range in age from young folks to those in their 90s and have different neurodegenerative conditions that impact their nervous systems. When a new player joins the crew, Barbera assesses them to see where they should begin. Some players hang onto the pingpong table and practice walking back and forth along it or tossing the ball into the air and catching it. Barbera and Vargas hover close by, keeping an eye on players’ balance and movement control. Vargas teaches basic table tennis techniques, including how to serve and hit. She practices with the players, lobbing the ball in such a way as to set them up for success. A successful volley is not the ultimate goal, though. “What I care about most is the entire person,” Barbera said. Patients’ mental health is considered, too, as Barbera and researchers inquire how players are feeling emotionally and socially. For Lauterbach, the group has provided a community of people who understand what he’s going through — Friends who can grab a coffee together after sessions. Earlier this month, Lauterbach beamed in the Fort Collins church gymnasium while demonstrating his ableness to balance on one leg — something he once couldn’t do — while surrounded by his newfound friends. “There is fellowship, and that helps, too,” Lauterbach said. “I work my whole schedule around pingpong because I hate missing it.” Vargas also goes to great lengths to attend NeuroPong. To get to her head coaching job, the 27-year-old bikes to a bus stop in her Highlands Ranch neighborhood, rides the bus to Fort Collins and then bikes to the church the group uses as home base before doing it all again to head home. When the Peruvian professional pingpong player was diagnosed with MS two years ago, she thought her days of table tennis were over. Dizziness, balance and vision problems plagued her, but the athletic young woman felt she couldn’t let the diagnosis define her. Instead, Vargas got back in the saddle with her pingpong paddle and competed in another Peruvian table tennis championship six months after her diagnosis — and won. “Something inside me said I could do it,” Vargas said. Vargas vacationed in Denver to visit friends soon after and ended up connecting with Barbera. The pingpong champion had been private about her diagnosis, only telling close friends and family, because the medical condition put her in a dark place, she said. Barbera offered her a Job and a chance to be open about her journey, which Vargas couldn’t resist. “Maybe this is my destiny, to help people that are doing the same as me and going through the same as me,” she said. Throughout a recent NeuroPong practice, Vargas was met with smiling hugs from her trainees, who gushed over her friendliness and dedication. Vargas volleyed the ball back and forth, coaching with kindness and encouragement while Barbera came around correcting posture, recommending stretches and assessing how everyone was faring. “I can see that this program is improving people’s symptoms,” Vargas said. “People are getting stronger. People who could not stand on their own at first are now doing so. People are having better control of their movements. They tell me they can open jars when they couldn’t before. It’s really improving quality of life.” So far, the science agrees. Matthew Woodward, a fellow at CU Anschutz’s Movement Disorders Center, said the results of their studies to date — looking at outcomes like balance improvement, movement and mood — show no negative results. The results need to be tested on a larger population to be statistically significant, Woodward said, but the research — this first study focuses solely on Parkinson’s disease — looks promising. Additional research is on the way, Barbera said. Exercise is the only thing doctors and scientists have found to slow the progression of Parkinson’s, Woodward said. He recommends 30 minutes of exertion, four to five times per week. Table tennis is unique in that it combines several challenges to stimulate the brain, including hand-eye coordination, balance, motor functions and speed, while also being a bit more low-impact and manageable than other sports, Woodward said. Mark Kelley, 73, helped pack up the pingpong tables in the Fort Collins church after a November practice with his friends. The program is so much more than pingpong, he said. The physical therapy and friendship have changed his life. “When I’m playing, it’s like my Parkinson’s melts away,” Kelley said.
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Star Wars Director Says It's About Time A Woman Makes A Star Wars Movie
Jan 02, 2024
Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeed Obaid-Chinoy is directing an upcoming Star Wars movie that brings back Daisy Ridley in the role of Rey. Obaid-Chinoy will become the first woman to direct a Star Wars film, dating back to the franchise's origins in the 1970s. Speaking about this, Obaid-Chinoy told CNN that she is "very thrilled" to make the movie and create something that is "very special.""We're in 2024 now, and I think it's about time we had a woman come forward to shape the story in a galaxy far, far away," she said.Obaid-Chinoy won Best Documentary, Short Subjects Academy Awards for Saving Face (2012) and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015).In 2020, Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy told the BBC that a woman would eventually direct a Star Wars movie, saying that would "absolutely" happen, "without question." Victoria Mahoney was a second unit director on The Rise of Skywalker, but a woman has never claimed a top directing credit on a Star Wars movie.On the TV side of things, The Mandalorian has featured a number of female directors, including Deborah Chow and Bryce Dallas Howard. Chow went on to direct the Obi-Wan TV series, too.Another high-profile franchise that has never had a female director is James Bond. Producer Barbara Broccoli and Skyfall director Sam Mendes have both said they want to see a woman direct a future 007 film.As for Obaid-Chinoy's Star Wars movie, little is known about it apart from the fact that Ridley will come back to play Rey. It is expected that this film will be the first of the three new Star Wars films to come to theaters, possibly releasing in December 2025.According to a report, Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight is writing the Rey movie, taking over for Damon Lindelof and Justin Britt-Gibson.
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NBA Names Clare Akamanzi CEO Of NBA Africa
Jan 02, 2024 15:29
The NBA named Clare Akamanzi – an accomplished business executive and international trade and investment lawyer – as CEO of NBA Africa. Akamanzi will start her position on Jan. 23, 2024, and report to NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Mark Tatum. In this role, Akamanzi will oversee the NBA’s business and basketball development efforts in Africa and will be responsible for continuing to grow the popularity of basketball, the NBA and the Basketball Africa League (BAL) across the continent, including through grassroots basketball development, media distribution, corporate partnerships, and social responsibility initiatives that improve the livelihoods of African youth and families. For the last six and a half years, Akamanzi was CEO of Rwanda Development Board (RDB), where she spearheaded Rwanda’s economic development by enabling private sector growth. Under Akamanzi’s leadership, RDB implemented several business policy reforms and initiatives that led to significant investment and development for the country, including through partnerships with the BAL, Arsenal FC, Paris Saint-Germain FC, FC Bayern Munich and TIME Magazine, among others. “Clare’s business acumen, international experience and familiarity with basketball and the NBA make her the ideal executive to lead our business in Africa,” says Tatum. “NBA Africa and the Basketball Africa League are well-positioned for continued growth, and under Clare’s leadership we believe these initiatives will transform economies, communities and lives across the continent.” “I’ve seen firsthand how sports can positively impact businesses, families and communities in Africa, and the NBA and the BAL are a perfect example of that,” says Akamanzi. “The NBA has done an incredible job growing basketball and the economy around it across the continent, and I’m excited about the enormous opportunities ahead to build on that momentum.” Previously, Akamanzi was Chief Operating Officer of RDB and Head of Strategy and Policy Unit, Office of the President of the Republic of Rwanda. She has extensive international trade, business and diplomatic experience, having previously worked for the Rwandan Government at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland and at the Rwandan Embassy in London, England. Akamanzi has worked or studied in seven different countries and holds an honorary LLD from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, in recognition of her work in Rwanda. She earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was the recipient of three prestigious awards for academic excellence and distinguished contribution to the community: the Lucius N. Littauer Fellows Award, the Raymond & Josephine Vernon Award and the Robert Kennedy Public Service Award. In addition, Akamanzi holds a Master of Laws degree in international trade and investments from the University of Pretoria in South Africa, and a Bachelor of Laws degree from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Akamanzi has served on several company boards, including the World Health Organization (WHO) Foundation, ECOBANK and Aviation, Travel and Logistics (ATL) company. She was recognized by Forbes as one of Africa’s Top 50 Powerful Women in 2020.
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