Parkinson’s and the female brain

Dr. Emily Hawken
Dr. Emily Hawken

Although Parkinson’s disease affects both men and women, women are less likely to develop the progressive neurological disorder, but more likely to experience severe motor symptoms and side effects of treatment.

At Queen’s University in Kingston, neuroscientist Emily Hawken investigates those gender differences. She’s studying the interaction between Parkinson’s disease and hormones that are intrinsic to females, such as estrogen. She wants to know how that interaction affects the transmission of chemicals in the brain. Hawken recently received a two-year, $100,000 Basic Research Fellowship from the Parkinson Canada Research Program to pursue this research.

For example, when women with Parkinson’s are treated with levodopa, the medication used to reduce the symptoms of the disease, they often develop more severe involuntary movements (dyskinesia) than men with Parkinson’s on the same medication.

“What is it about females that make them less likely to develop symptoms of Parkinson’s, yet more likely to be severely impaired by the side effects of the treatment?” she asks.

Using animal models, Hawken will transmit electrical currents through brain cells to measure the activity of those neurons in specific regions of the brain. Then she will observe and record the effect of specific neurotransmitters on the neurons she measures.

Recent evidence suggests estrogen may affect other brain chemicals, such as dopamine, and estrogen may itself become a neuromodulator that transmits information to brain cells. Hawken hopes she will observe  physiological evidence that animals that develop dyskinesia experience changes in their brain cells that  differ depending on the animals’ gender.

If she can pinpoint a gender difference, Hawken hopes her research will inform treatments for Parkinson’s disease that are designed differently for women and men.

“Instead of a blanket treatment … perhaps if we did tailor the treatment for women, it would be equally therapeutic, but with fewer side effects,” Hawken says.

Historically, most health research has been conducted using men and a male model of disease, Hawken points out. “We could be completely missing something just by looking at the male model,” Hawken says. “Women are suffering as a consequence, because they generally don’t present the same symptoms. Their treatments are often subpar because our knowledge base isn’t adequate in terms of how the female brain operates.”

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