Family Donates $200,000 to Support Studies Into Freezing of Gait

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by Margarida Maia, PhD |

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A $200,000 gift from the Cargill family will help to support studies into gait that is affected by Parkinson’s disease.

The money, from the estate of Bob and Sara Lou Cargill and given by their daughter Sara Beth Lee and her husband John Lee, who has Parkinson’s, will go toward the Virmani Gait Laboratory. The lab is headed by Tuhin Virmani, MD, PhD, co-director of the Movement Disorders Program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).

“We greatly appreciate the generous gift to the Virmani Gait Lab,” Virmani, who is also an assistant professor in the neurology department at the UAMS College of Medicine, said in a press release.

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“This gift will help support our important work trying to figure out the causes of freezing of gait in people with Parkinson’s disease, which hopefully will eventually lead to new treatments and cures for this difficult-to-treat symptom,” Virmani added.

Parkinson’s, a slowly progressive and degenerative disorder, occurs when nerve cells, or neurons, in a specific area of the brain start to malfunction or die. Some of these neurons make dopamine, a chemical that relays information between nerve cells and muscles, directing muscle movement and coordination.

Its loss results in motor symptoms that can include resting tremor, rigidity, slow (akinesia) and decreased (bradykinesia) voluntary movement, and difficulty maintaining balance and gait.

The Virmani Gait Lab is particularly interested in studying freezing of gait, which usually marks Parkinson’s later stages. Freezing of gait occurs when walking and other voluntary movements suddenly halt, making patients feel “stuck” to the ground. By arresting movement, it can lead to falls or fear of falling, and affects patients’ quality of life and ability to be socially active.

Current research in Virmani’s lab includes the development of predictive algorithms that can identify patients most likely to acquire frozen gait, and “develop treatments to prevent or slow the progression into freezers,” the lab states on its webpage.

Bob and Sara Lou Cargill, during their almost 70 years of marriage, gave their attention and efforts to ministry and business, travel and philanthropy: Bob as a pastor and his wife as a musician for the churches and with youth. They founded Cargill Associates, a fundraising consulting firm that is reported to have helped raise over $7 million that supported a range of institutions and organizations.

Prior to their deaths — Sara Beth Lee lost her father in 2015 and mother in 2020 — the couple designated money for giving without any specified purpose. The Lees decided to earmark the funds for Virmani and his lab, having met the neurologist during exams that led to John Lee being diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

“We are so fortunate to have this money to give on their behalf,” said Sara Beth Lee.

“We wanted to give specifically to someone who’s making a big difference for people with brain disease, and Dr. Virmani is doing that,” John Lee said, adding “we really like Dr. Virmani a lot.”

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