Former speed skater Beorn Nijenhuis starts PhD studying a movement disorder seen in high-level speed skaters

Former professional speed skater Beorn Nijenhuis is pursuing a PhD at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (RUG) /Campus Fryslân, where he is looking into a fascinating movement disorder that affects high-level speed skaters.

Known colloquially to the Dutch public as ‘zwabbervoet’, Nijenhuis is studying the mysterious causes of this undiagnosed condition. His PhD is being overseen by Prof. dr. M.A.J. de Koning-Tijssen, professor at the University Medical Center Groningen, and expert in a variety of movement disorders. “‘Zwabbvervoet’ results in expert skaters losing control and coordination suddenly, thereby ending their careers.” Nijenhuis and Koning-Tijssen will research to what degree ‘zwabbervoet’ is related to other task-specific disorders found in musicians, dart players, baseball players and even surgeons.

Task-specific movement disorders have been best studied in musicians, where estimates of those affected range around 1% of the professional population. “Very often musicians with this condition must completely abandon their musical career, initial observations seem to show that skaters with this condition suffer a similar fate, also the condition seems to be related to the central nervous system, we want to see if that is true for skaters as well.”  When Nijenhuis first thought of the possible link, he discovered there was very little literature on the subject. Only Dr. Koning-Tijssen had made a similar link in an earlier published response article, where she called for further investigation into the relationship between task specific dystonia and ‘zwabbervoet’.

Nijenhuis: “At the moment we are studying the fascinating hypothesis that ‘zwabbervoet’ is a form of task-specific dystonia similar to that seen in other experts like musicians, golfers and dart players. I’m very motivated to learn more about this, not only for my scientific curiosity, but also to bring some more diagnostic clarity and peace of mind to those unfortunate skaters who suffer from a condition.”  The research is being done in partnership with Innovatielab Thialf, Jeroen van der Eb of the VU Amsterdam and Dr. Bert Otten, also a professor of neuro-mechanics at the RUG.

Campus Fryslân is the 11th faculty of the RUG, located in Leeuwarden.  Within this faculty there are multiple disciplines being represented, allowing international students, PhD’s and researchers to approach a broad range of scientific questions in search of greater understanding.