Early-Stage Parkinson's Study Will Image Pre-treatment Brain Function

A team of researchers led by David Vaillancourt, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, hope that tests using functional and high-resolution structural brain imaging will reveal new clues about early Parkinson’s disease. They’ve been awarded a two-year, $855,000 National Institutes of Health grant to do the work.

“What’s not well understood is how the structure and function of the basal ganglia, or other parts of the brain, are affected early on in the disease,” said Vaillancourt.

He and his colleagues will recruit 25 subjects with early signs of Parkinson’s who haven’t yet begun taking drugs to control the disease. Their study will compare findings to a control group matched for age, gender and handedness — because all subjects will perform motor tasks with their hands while their brain is being imaged.

The study will be the first into early Parkinson’s to use functional brain imaging during gripping tasks designed to simulate everyday activities such as buttoning a shirt or blouse, or holding a cup.

“Individuals will undergo a brain scan while they exert force using their hands against a device that measures how hard and how fast they squeeze,” said Vaillancourt. “Functional brain imaging will be targeted at the basal ganglia, which is the part of the brain that underlies symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.”

Vaillancourt’s group wants to study what is happening before Parkinson’s patients begin treatment with drugs such as levodopa that can change the way the brain functions. Pre-treatment brain scans may be useful to develop markers for screening and diagnosis.

Those with Parkinson’s will be imaged as soon as possible after volunteering and will begin treatment with anti-Parkinson’s drugs afterward.

“With Parkinson’s, the brain must change over time, because it’s a neuro-degenerative disease,” Vaillancourt said. “This study will serve as the basis for trying to understand how the disease progresses.”

Cynthia Comella, professor of neurological sciences at Rush University Medical Center, will assist on the project. Imaging will be performed at UIC. Co-investigators at UIC include Daniel Corcos, professor of kinesiology; Deborah Little, associate professor of neurology and rehabilitation; and Jane Prodoehl, research assistant professor of kinesiology.

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