Here are just some of the innovative research projects currently funded through Parkinson Society Canada’s National Research Program:
Dr. Connie Marras
Staff Neurologist, Movement Disorders Centre, Toronto Western Hospital
Assistant Professor of Neurology, University of Toronto
Pilot Project Grant
Environmental determinants of age at onset of Parkinson’s disease in LRRK2 G20198 mutation carriers
People who carry a mutated gene known as LRRK2 are at high risk for Parkinson’s. However, not everyone with this mutation gets the disease. Dr. Connie Marras is investigating environmental factors that may tip the balance for susceptible people. As part of an international study, Dr. Marras, a neurologist at the Toronto Western Hospital Movement Disorders Centre, is administering a questionnaire to identify environmental risks and protective factors shared by people with LRRK2 who developed Parkinson’s. Finding out what protects people with this gene from the disease is just as important as discovering why they develop it, says Dr. Marras. “If we better understand protective factors or risk factors for the disease, then it would lead immediately to research to find out how we can leverage that information.”
Dr. Mario Masellis
Clinician Scientist, Department of Medicine, University of Toronto
Staff Neurologist, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre
New Investigator Award
$90,000 over two years
Parkinson’s related dementia: a pharmacogenomic study of cholinesterase inhibitors investigating cognitive benefit, motor worsening and brain SPECT
About half of everyone with Parkinson’s disease will eventually develop dementia or some form of cognitive impairment, including visual hallucinations. To treat the hallucinations and diminished memory, concentration and focus, doctors use a class of drugs called cognitive enhancers. At the University of Toronto, Dr. Mario Masellis is investigating the way people with Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia, a related disease, change after receiving these drugs. By matching the changes to people’s genetic profiles, Masellis hopes to predict who will respond well to these medications and who will have side-effects. “One side-effect is that your motor function can sometimes be made worse,” says Masellis. “It would be nice to know in advance who would likely have that negative effect, to better target therapy directly to individuals.” Using a special scan called a SPECT to observe the effects of these drugs on blood flow in the brain, Masellis also hopes to develop a painless biomarker to help guide treatment and identify people who could benefit most from these drugs.
Dr. Clinton McCracken
Post Doctoral Fellow
Department of Clinical Neurosciences and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute
University of Calgary
Basic Research Fellowship
$100,000 over two years
Therapeutic mechanisms of deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) can significantly improve Parkinson’s motor symptoms and may also reduce dyskinesias, the uncontrolled movements that are a side-effect of Parkinson’s medications. But DBS can also increase impulsivity, resulting in side-effects like problem gambling. At the University of Calgary, Dr. Clinton McCracken, a post-doctoral fellow, is investigating the brain circuitry affected by DBS to discover why some people become so impulsive. To avoid this side-effect, Dr. McCracken wants to help surgeons refine the positioning of the electrodes and the targets of the frequencies at which electrical stimulation is delivered to the brain. “Figuring out ways that we can better tune these circuits so we get better outcomes and better quality of life is something that is really compelling for me,” says McCracken.
Vincent Martel Sauvageau
Centre de Recherche Université Laval
Graduate Student Award
$30,000 over two years
Effectiveness of magnetic stimulation of the brain on disorders of speech and language in Parkinson’s disease
Communications problems negatively affect the daily lives of many people with Parkinson’s. But standard treatments that improve motor function may not improve speech. At Laval University, doctoral candidate Vincent Martel Sauvageau is studying the effects of deep brain stimulation (DBS), a surgical intervention to treat Parkinson’s, on speech. He wants to know why implanting electrodes and stimulating areas of the brain with electrical impulses improves speech in some people but not others. The information could help neurologists determine the best candidates for DBS surgery. Sauvageau is also studying the Lee Silverman Voice Treatment to see why it helps some people with Parkinson’s speak louder and more clearly. “We’d like to know, in the future, who would benefit more from this type of speech therapy,” says Sauvageau. He hopes his findings will help people with Parkinson’s communicate better and live as independently as possible.
Dr. Barbara Connolly
Movement Disorders Centre, Toronto Western Hospital
The Nora Fischer Clinical Movement Disorder Fellowship
A Clinical Fellowship in the diagnosis, management and treatment of Parkinson’s disease
When people with Parkinson’s disease have been living with their illness for years, the disease can become more difficult to manage – sometimes beyond the expertise even of neurologists. Dr. Barbara Connolly, a neurologist, is spending the year at Toronto Western Hospital’s Movement Disorders Clinic, to become an expert in not just the motor symptoms but the cognitive problems, pain and other issues that people with complex forms of Parkinson’s disease experience. “Other neurologists can refer to me if they need help treating their own patients, so I’ll be a resource in my community,” says Connolly. Dr. Connolly is also participating in two clinical trials of medications: an international study of Cogane, assessing it as a neuroprotective agent to slow or stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease; and a trial for famotidine. Currently approved to treat heartburn, famotidine is being studied to see if it can reduce dyskinesias, the uncontrollable movements that many people experience as a side-effect of levodopa. “My hope is that I can help as many people as I can and make their lives better,” says Dr. Connolly.
For more information about Parkinson Society Canada’s National Research Program and currently-funded research, visit Research on Parkinson Society Canada’s web site.