Parkinson Canada announces funding for 19 research projects for 2016-2018

Parkinson Canada and its partners is proud to support 19 researchers recently named as recipients of its Research Program grant, fellowship and student awards for the next two years. They will advance our knowledge of Parkinson’s, a complex brain disease; share their information with the scientific and Parkinson’s communities; and their work offers hope for the future to those living with the disease.

These latest awards represent a total of $1,124,018 to support new research projects in Canada. The Parkinson Canada Research Program is currently committed to investing a total of $1,439,018, including the nine research awards now in their second year. Since 1981, the Parkinson Canada Research Program has invested more than $26 million in 503 research projects.

The latest awards include:

  • 7 Pilot Project Grants
  • 3 New Investigator Awards
  • 3 Basic Research Fellowships
  • 1 Clinical Movement Disorders Fellowship
  • 1 Clinical Research Fellowship
  • 4 Graduate Student Awards

A detailed list of the 2016-2018 researchers, their project titles, affiliations and funding amounts can be found in the Research section of Later this fall, profiles of this year’s funded projects and researchers will be added to the Research section of the website and highlighted throughout the year in e-Parkinson Post.

How do we decide which projects to fund?
The selection of funded projects follows a rigorous process. Parkinson Canada sends out a call of proposals well in advance of the application deadline to Canada-based researchers, health care professionals and graduate students. A peer review of the proposals is conducted by Parkinson Canada’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), who review, score and rank each application using Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) standards. (Members recuse themselves from reviewing any application where there is a conflict of interest.)

SAB members, all volunteer experts, take about two months to review and score the applications and then gather together to discuss and rate the proposals. Rankings based on the  SAB’s ratings are delivered to The Research Policy Committee (RPC), who recommends that the Parkinson Canada Board of Directors funds those applications with the highest ratings for scientific excellence, innovation and relevance to Parkinson’s.

Members of the SAB gather to rate research proposals.
“We are able to conduct such a rigorous and high-quality adjudication and funding process, with the generous contributions of time and expertise of our SAB members and the members of the Research Policy Committee of the Parkinson Canada Board. The quality reputation of our Research Program is upheld by their efforts and expertise,” says Julie Wysocki, Director, Parkinson Canada Research Program.

The final step in the research funding process is that all grant recipients are required to submit progress reports and financial accounting reports annually and upon completion of multi-year awards.

Progress reports highlight research results and the sharing of them through both scientific and public presentations and publications. “The sharing of the knowledge acquired, is just as important as the research results themselves,” says Wysocki. “Knowledge transfer ensures the work our researchers do is added to the global body of Parkinson’s knowledge.”

In addition to the 19 projects receiving funding for the 2016-2018 funding cycle, another 66 projects that were scientifically meritorious and recommended for funding, fell below the funding cut off and went unfunded. To fund these additional projects would require another $3,557,688 in available funding, which depends on donor support. Your donation to Parkinson Canada helps the Research Program contribute vital and relevant evidence about Parkinson’s disease in Canada and around the world.

More about the Parkinson Canada Research Program
Parkinson Canada is the largest, non-government funder of Parkinson’s research in Canada. Investing in science that explores most aspects of the disease, including: causes, complications, cognitive impairment, biomarkers, neuroprotection and quality of life provides hope and understanding. Parkinson Canada researchers also investigate related disorders such as Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP) and other forms of parkinsonism, and the impact these diseases have on individuals and society.

The Parkinson Canada Research Program invests in:

  • High-quality, innovative Canadian research by established and promising investigators.
  • Discovery-stage research where investigators test new theories and pursue promising new leads.
  • Researchers at the beginning of their careers in order to foster the next generation of Parkinson’s scientists.
  • Novel research to build greater capacity, promote creativity and engage more researchers.
  • Specialist training for clinicians to build capacity in high quality care for people with Parkinson’s.

The pulsating brain and its implications for Parkinson’s disease

Bradley MacIntosh
Bradley MacIntosh

Even before people with Parkinson’s disease experience motor symptoms that include stiffness or tremors, they may have problems with their blood pressure and cognitive issues that affect their judgment and reasoning ability.

At Toronto’s Sunnybrook Research Institute, Bradley MacIntosh, a neuroimaging scientist, is using imaging technology to try to identify people with these early symptoms of Parkinson’s. MacIntosh is using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of people who have difficulty regulating their blood pressure, a problem called orthostatic hypotension. MacIntosh was awarded a $45,000 Porridge for Parkinson’s (Toronto) Pilot Project in Honour of Delphine Martin grant from the 2015-2017 funding cycle of the Parkinson Canada Research Program.
These blood pressure problems can cause light-headedness, dizziness and fainting, particularly when people stand up. The scans MacIntosh is conducting will track how often the brain is pulsating – a measure of blood flow to the brain. He believes the volatility of that blood flow is bad for the brain, and may be either depriving brain cells of oxygen or flooding them with too much oxygen, at different times.  That “pulsatility,” is an indication of the orthostatic hypotension.

“The brain is like Jello, and it’s pulsating with every heartbeat. Too much of this jiggling, we think, is related to blood vessels that have lost their ability to cushion the blood flow,” he says.

MacIntosh hopes to correlate rates of pulsatility with fluctuations in white matter in the brains of people who have already been diagnosed clinically as being in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. He and his team will also test their cognitive functioning to see if that is also declining.  If he can confirm an association with the volatility of blood flow to the brain, and show cognitive decline, he will not only have developed a way to help diagnose Parkinson’s disease, he may also open up treatment avenues. Treating the volatile blood pressure early might prove beneficial.
“What we’re aiming for right now is a non-invasive diagnostic tool using information that is already out there,’’ says MacIntosh. “It’s just a matter of finding and proving that this can be helpful.”

Parkinson’s disease is just one of the many complicated subjects that MacIntosh studies, from physics to jazz. “My life is not complicated, but I like complicated things,” he says.  He particularly enjoys working in Parkinson’s research because “there’s a lot of optimism in the field of Parkinson’s.”

Read about other researchers recently funded by the Parkinson Canada Research Program.

REM sleep disorder as a precursor to Parkinson’s disease

Dr. Jacques Montplaisir
Dr. Jacques Montplaisir

Every 90 minutes, during periods of sleep marked by rapid eye movements (REM), most people lie paralyzed, breathing and dreaming. As we age, though, some of us lose that paralysis during REM sleep and begin to act out our dreams – sometimes violently.

At the Université de Montréal, Dr. Jacques Montplaisir, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist, is investigating the association between REM sleep behaviour disorders and Parkinson’s disease. The vast majority of people with the sleep disorder (about one per cent of the general population) go on to develop either Parkinson’s disease or dementia with Lewy bodies, another progressive neurological disease closely associated with Parkinson’s. This work is being funded by a one-year, $44,850 Pilot Project Grant from the Parkinson Canada Research Program, supported by the Quebec Research Fund* on Parkinson of Parkinson Quebec.

“Up to 80 per cent of these sleep behaviour disorder patients will develop Parkinson’s disease or dementia with Lewy bodies within the timeframe of about 10 years,” says Montplaisir. “It’s a very important risk factor for Parkinson’s disease.”

Using Positron Emission Tomography (PET), Montplaisir and his team will scan the brains and guts of people with the sleep disorder to look for the abnormal transmission of a chemical called acetylcholine. They believe that people with the sleep disorder have a defect that is preventing them from transmitting enough of the chemical.

By comparing their scans with scans of people who don’t have Parkinson’s disease, Montplaisir and his colleagues hope to find PET scan markers in the brain that will indicate a population of people most likely to develop Parkinson’s.

Identifying a population of people 10 or 20 years before they develop the motor control symptoms most commonly associated with Parkinson’s would give researchers a chance to administer new drugs that could slow or stop the degeneration of brain cells that occur before most of the damage to the brain has been done, Montplaisir says.

“There are (new) drugs that are coming. We would like to have access to these medications to treat patients with REM behaviour disorder,” he says.

Montplaisir has been conducting research into sleep disorders for decades, not knowing his work would lead to a connection with Parkinson’s disease. Now, he feels on the cusp of “a major breakthrough” that will lead to a better understanding of the disease.

Read about other researchers recently funded by the Parkinson Canada Research Program.

*Quebec Research Fund on Parkinson is funded notably, by the Saucier-van Berkom Parkinson Quebec Research Fund.

Critical connections among brain cells

Charles Ducrot
Charles Ducrot

Making connections is not only important for people’s emotional well-being – it is also critical for healthy brains. As researchers are now discovering, the synapses, or the connections that convey signals and information from one neuron to another, may hold clues about what causes Parkinson’s disease.

At the University of Montreal, molecular biologist Charles Ducrot investigates the role synapses play in the reason that dopamine-producing neurons in one part of the brain are more vulnerable to death than those in another part of the brain. His work is being funded by a $30,000, two-year Graduate Student Award from the Parkinson Canada Research Program, supported by the Quebec Research Fund* on Parkinson of Parkinson Quebec and Parkinson Society British Columbia.

Earlier research has already established the death of those dopamine-producing neurons as central to Parkinson’s disease. Now Ducrot, a PhD student, is testing a theory that the less vulnerable neurons in the brain’s ventral tegmental area (VTA) stay alive longer than those in the substantia nigra because the VTA neurons establish more synapses that release a chemical messenger called glutamate. Such synapses may allow them to communicate better with their target cells and receive signals that facilitate their survival.

Ducrot wants to find out if dopamine-producing brain cells in the substantia nigra die because they have fewer glutamate synapses, and can’t receive as many survival signals.

To test his theory, Ducrot and his colleagues have identified key proteins involved in forming these connections, or synapses. Using cell cultures, he will increase or decrease the amount of these proteins expressed in the cells, to change the number of synapses the neurons form. Then he will expose the cells to toxins that produce Parkinson-like symptoms, to see if the brain cells with fewer synapses are more vulnerable and die.

“We know that synaptic contacts are very important, and in some way involved in survival,” Ducrot says.  He believes that “if we increase the expression of these proteins, we increase the number of synapses, and we might decrease the vulnerability of neurons in Parkinson’s disease.”

If Ducrot can prove his theory, he hopes to lay the foundation for a new type of gene therapy.

Ever since his first year in university, when he learned about dopaminergic neurons, Ducrot has been fascinated with discovering the causes of Parkinson’s disease. “It’s a common disease, and I want to know and understand more about it,” he says.

Read about other researchers recently funded by the Parkinson Canada Research Program.

*Quebec Research Fund on Parkinson is funded notably, by the Saucier-van Berkom Parkinson Quebec Research Fund.