Renowned Parkinson's Disease researcher to lead RAGBRAI group overnighting at Northgate Friday

Dr. Jay Alberts ... Submitted photo.

General public invited to "fireside chat" with Dr. Jay Alberts this Friday on Parkinson's Disease

by Julie Berg-Raymond

According to RAGBRAI®’s official website (, more than 326,650 people have participated in at least some part of the 44 rides since the event began, in 1973.

Since 2003, about 50 of those people have participated each year as part of a group led by Sanborn native Dr. Jay Alberts, a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic - ranked as one of the top hospitals in America by U.S. News & World Report (2015), located in Cleveland, OH.
According to Dr. Alberts, “One unique aspect of our group is that we typically have seven to 12 Parkinson’s disease patients riding their own bike or on tandem throughout the week (of RAGBRAI).”

Dr. Alberts’ primary area of research is related to understanding the effects of exercise and rehabilitation on Parkinson’s disease (PD) patients and individuals with stroke. He and members of his group are staying overnight in Waukon Friday, July 28 during their RAGBRAI journey, guests of Northgate Care Center. As part of that stay, Dr. Alberts will conduct a “fireside chat” at 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 28 in the Care Center’s newly remodeled front lobby. The event is open to the public.

Dr. Alberts’ interest in Parkinson’s disease (PD) started around 1993, when he was an undergraduate at Iowa State University. “A PD patient came to visit a neuroscience class and made the statement, ‘I know what I want to do with my hands, but I can’t make them do it,’” Dr. Alberts noted during a recent email interview.

He formally began study of PD as a graduate student at Arizona State University. When he finished his PhD in 2000, he took an assistant professor position at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

“As a new professor I was interested in PD, but primarily the use of a surgical procedure, Deep Brain Stimulation, to improve the symptoms of PD,” he said. “Around 2002, one of my family friends in northwest Iowa was diagnosed with PD. He essentially got the diagnosis and then sat in a chair and let the disease take its toll. I knew that was the wrong approach and that the diagnosis was not a death sentence. Rather, one had to fight this disease to regain control.”

In 2003 a group of Dr. Albert’s friends, including a PD patient, decided they would come to Iowa for RAGBRAI and raise awareness for PD and spread the message that receiving this diagnosis was not a death sentence. “Fighting looks different for everyone,” he said. “(But) you need to fight the disease and be an advocate for yourself and take an active role in the treatment of this disease. It was purely serendipity that we identified exercise on a tandem bike may improve PD symptoms.”

Recalling that serendipitous identification, Dr. Alberts said the PD patient on the 2003 ride, Cathy Frazier of Atlanta, GA, initially was scheduled to ride tandem with her husband, Ralph, an accomplished cyclist.

“Like many married couples, a tandem bike does not always bring out the best in the relationship,” Dr. Alberts said. “After a morning or so of marital strife, Ralph and I switched roles. I rode tandem with his wife and he rode my single bike.”

At one point Cathy told Dr. Alberts, “I don’t feel like I have PD on the bike.”

“I told her it must be the clean air of Iowa and all the pie and ice cream we were eating,” Dr. Alberts recalled. “She then wrote a birthday card out to another member of our team and the handwriting was perfect. I saw that and asked, ‘Who wrote that?’ She stated she had and said, ‘isn’t it amazing?’ It was.”

The reason it was amazing, Dr. Alberts said, was that she, like many PD patients, experience micrographic - small and illegible handwriting. Riding on a tandem, using almost exclusively her leg muscles, resulted in improved handwriting.

“I was shocked and puzzled, and my scientific curiosity was sparked,” he said. He later showed in a controlled study that the ability of forced pedaling to suppress Parkinson’s symptoms can persist for weeks afterward.

Dr. Alberts suspects that the high-intensity exercise changes how the brain processes movement, resulting in improved motor function overall. The benefits of tandem cycling can be achieved indoors and out, even without a biking partner.

“We have published papers that demonstrate high intensity exercise activates the pathways as medication used to treat PD,” he said. “It appears the high rate of exercise is triggering a fundamental change in brain function… Cycling provides a nice and safe model for exercising at a relatively high intensity and rate.”

While RAGBRAI is both exhilarating and exhausting for PD patients, Dr. Alberts said any challenges the riders face are “nothing that the person living in Iowa doesn’t experience on a daily basis in the summer: humidity and wind (particularly headwinds) that can make a seemingly short day feel very long.”
The group’s number-one goal is to have a safe and enjoyable experience, he said. “I tell all of the PD patients that we do not give gold stars for riding every mile or even every day of RAGBRAI. Specifically, we emphasize staying hydrated all week, as the effects of dehydration will zap them toward the end of the week,” he said.

Some patients ride tandems, some have ridden recumbent trikes and others ride single bikes. On long days, patients are offered an abbreviated day and can be dropped off at the midpoint town in the morning so they can arrive safely to the final town and experience the joy of entering that final town.

“I am not sure the people of these towns realize the impact they have on the riders in general and those with PD in particular,” Dr. Alberts said. “Imagine you have been pedaling and slogging through the day and then you come to the final town and people are cheering and waving and high-fiving you… it is a great feeling.”

Rest is the other key aspect throughout the week, he said.

“Hence, the importance and great value provided by our overnight hosts, such as Northgate. Having a place that is a little bit quiet and separated from the main festivities is critical,” he added. “We typically set up a massage table at these locations and those patients who want a massage can relive their aches and pains.”

For their part, Northgate Care Center is pleased to be hosting Dr. Alberts and his group.

“We are honored that Dr. Alberts entrusted our facility to house his RAGBRAI group,” Chad Wikan, Northgate Care Center’s activity coordinator assistant said. “We look forward to meeting him and the other individuals participating in the event. We are excited for his presentation and hope to provide our staff, residents and the community with a better understanding of Parkinson’s Disease.”

Dr. Alberts and his friend from the serendipitous RAGBRAI ride in 2003, Cathy Frazier, are president and vice president, respectively, of “Pedaling for Parkinson’s” - a small, grassroots organization that is trying to facilitate patients taking an active role in the treatment of their disease.

“That action may be exercise or could be just asking more questions when they are going to their physician,” Dr. Alberts said. “We have started more than 60 Pedaling for Parkinson’s programs at various YMCAs across the United States and plan to support more programs. All of the funds raised are put back into the PD community to help patients ‘live well.’”

For more information, visit or and click the “living well” tab for tips and exercise recommendations.

Dr. Alberts is currently an assistant staff member in the Department of Biomedical Engineering within the Lerner Research Institute and the Center for Neurological Restoration, Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, OH. For more information on his research visit He has more than 25 peer-reviewed scientific publications in journals such as Brain, Experimental Brain Research and other prominent medical journals.

Dr. Alberts serves as a reviewer for a number of scientific journals and funding agencies and his professional affiliations include American Academy of Neurology, Society of Neuroscience and International Graphonomics Society. Dr. Alberts has had continual extramural funding for his research since 1997 in the form of grants from the National Institutes of Health, American Parkinson’s Disease Association and Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation.

Dr. Alberts is married to his wife, Janelle, and they have two children. Dr. Alberts and his wife are tandem bicycling enthusiasts.

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