Digitally created image of a brain in a man's head

Early diagnosis of Parkinson’s essential, says researcher

Early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease is one of the most important issues in Parkinson’s disease research, says a Parkinson’s expert.

“The trouble with Parkinson’s disease is that by the time symptoms appear, up to 70% of the susceptible brain cells may have already died,” says NeuRA’s Assoc Prof Kay Double.

Assoc Prof Kay Double will explore this and other issues in Parkinson’s disease research at a talk at the Australian Museum next week.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, degenerative brain disease. The disease destroys brain cells that control the body’s movement, causing trembling, stiffness, slowness of movement and loss of fine motor control.

Assoc Prof Double is currently investigating whether ultrasound can be used as a simple and cheap screening tool for the disease.

“Ultrasound is non-invasive and readily available in the community. If our technique works, we could use it to inexpensively screen people before the disease takes hold,” she says.

“This new technique could be the first stage of preventing Parkinson’s disease.”

Assoc Prof Double is currently recruiting people (both healthy and with Parkinson’s disease) aged between 50 and 70 years to participate in this study.

The role of stem cells in treatment

The research team is also looking at the role stem cells could play in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

“This is particularly important for people who already have the symptoms of Parkinson’s,” she says. “The chance to diagnose early has already passed, and any treatment to slow the death of brain cells in these people would only have limited benefit given the amount of damage the disease has already caused.”

The purpose of stem cell research is to try and improve the function of the damaged brain, says Assoc Prof Double.

“We already know that a person with Parkinson’s disease has fewer stem cells in their brain than a healthy person. The idea would be to either implant new ones, or to stimulate the remaining stem cells into action.”

The problem, says Assoc Prof Double, is that very little is currently known about how stem cells function in the human brain.

“So we’re doing a lot of work to try and understand the biology of the cells, how they are regulated and how that’s changed in Parkinson’s. We’re also looking at whether, if you did implant cells in the brain, the brain could even support their survival.”

The Double lab is also investigating whether it is possible to control stem cells already present in the brain.

“We’re looking at how we can stimulate the stem cells to restore function to the damaged areas of the brain,” says Assoc Prof Double.

Assoc Prof Double will be giving a talk at the Australian Museum on current research into Parkinson’s disease on Tuesday 18 October 2011 at 7pm.