First Person: Choosing a career in neuroscience and Parkinson’s

By Dr. Isabelle Boileau

I chose neuroscience because I wanted to understand how minute changes in brain chemistry can lead to remarkable changes in behaviour and function and can lead to disease.


Motivated by my desire to learn about the neurochemistry of human behaviour, the first conscious decision of my scientific career was to work in the area of molecular imaging, using positron emission tomography (PET scan). I am drawn to this area because it allows us to study, while people are awake, how the brain adapts, at the molecular level, to treatment and disease, as a first step towards being able to make informed decisions about therapeutic strategies. With its ability to map normal and pathological neurochemical processes in the living brain, PET technology has the potential to accelerate the progression from experimentation to clinical applications that will benefit people.

I am particularly interested in finding out why Parkinson’s symptoms re-emerge after people have shown dramatic improvements from taking levodopa. My research is focused on trying to understand what adaptations in the brain’s dopamine system, if any, can explain the occurrence of the side-effects of dopamine replacement therapy.

Right now, we don’t know what mechanisms are responsible for increased sensitivity to the effects of anti-parkinsonian drugs. My lab is trying to understand the changes in the brain that account for the side-effects of long-term treatment with these drugs. We think that the emergence of disabling side-effects may be due to a change in the number of D3 dopamine receptors in the brain. (The current drugs target these D3 dopamine receptors.) We are using PET technology to investigate the number of D3 dopamine receptors in the brains of people with Parkinson’s who develop side-effects to dopamine replacement therapy.

So far, we have been able to show that, unlike the D2 dopamine receptor, the D3 dopamine receptor level in the brain is decreased in never-treated Parkinson’s disease but appears to be increased following anti-parkinsonian medication. With funding from Parkinson Society Canada, we are now investigating whether this increase can be replicated in a larger sample and is related to treatment complications such as dyskinesias (uncontrolled movements).

The most rewarding aspect of working in the field of Parkinson’s is sharing scientific thoughts with patients. They are always a step ahead of me. Their interest in my work is the best way of measuring its value.

To young students who are considering a career in science, I say, good for you. This is an exciting time to be starting a scientific career. In addition to new and exciting technological developments and an acceleration of data production in all medical fields, new modes of communication are bringing scientific thinking into the public sphere. More than ever, science and scientific questions are shaping our culture.

Dr. Isabelle Boileau is a Clinical Research Scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. She is the recipient of a Parkinson Society Canada New Investigator Award.

For more information on her research and participating in a clinical trial