Modelling Parkinson’s Disease

Cynthia Kwan
PhD Student
Montreal Neurological Institute

Despite decades of research, there’s no cure for Parkinson’s disease and no therapies that protect against it. At the Montreal Neurological Institute, PhD student Cynthia Kwan is developing an animal model to reproduce the progression of the disease and its symptoms. She’s using the model to follow the impact of a synthetic form of the protein alpha-synuclein on the brain, to see how it spreads and accumulates. Her research is made possible by Parkinson Canada National Research Program through a Graduate Student Award for $20,000 over 2 years.

To find a cure for Parkinson’s disease or to prevent it, researchers need to test potential treatments on models that accurately reproduce the spread of the disease.

At the Montreal Neurological Institute, PhD student Cynthia Kwan, a neuroscientist, believes the lack of a model that mimics the human condition is one of the reasons treatments for Parkinson’s have so far proved elusive.

That’s why Kwan is developing a new animal model that will exhibit the motor symptoms Parkinson’s produces, like stiffness, tremors and problems with walking.

Kwan will inject her model with a synthetic form of alpha-synuclein, a protein considered key to Parkinson’s disease.

Researchers believe clumps of alpha-synuclein that accumulate in the brain cells that produce dopamine are responsible for killing those neurons. The death of thousands of these cells affects the parts of the brain that control movement, producing the tremors, stiffness and shakiness that are the hallmarks of Parkinson’s disease.

Cognitive symptoms, such as the ability to reason or make judgments, are also a part of the disease.

“Once we actually develop and characterize our model, we hope to test some drugs with disease-modifying potential to see if that will prevent or slow down this accumulation of alpha-synuclein and see if they can improve the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, as well as the non-motor symptoms,” Kwan says.

Eventually, she hopes to be able to trace the movement of alpha-synuclein within the brain and see how the accumulation affects different regions, with the resulting symptoms.

She will also use imaging technology to trace the rate at which dopamine loss occurs.

Kwan was inspired to work on Parkinson’s disease during her undergraduate degree in pharmacology. One of her lecturers talked about the lack of treatment for people with Parkinson’s, and the debilitating nature of the illness.

“That really resonated with me,” says Kwan.

She hopes the knowledge she and other researchers gain from this new animal model will move them closer to their goal of making a tangible difference in stopping Parkinson’s. “We hope to help in the quest to develop therapies that will not just treat the symptoms but slow down or delay the progression of this disease,” Kwan says.