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Neurobiologist probes roots of Parkinson's disease

Professor Joanne Nash studies the molecular roots of Parkinson's disease.

Deep inside your brain are cells that secrete a chemical called dopamine. It really is quite a wonder, this substance.

As a neurotransmitter, dopamine is like a sparkplug in your car’s engine – filtering out messages through your nervous system that enable you to control your movements.

For some people, however, the cells carrying the dopamine begin to die, usually after the age of 50 or 60. And when the cells die, the dopamine disappears. The result is Parkinson’s disease.

Joanne Nash, a professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough, has brought her skills as a bright young neurobiologist from England to investigate why those cells die and how the symptoms, like rigid posture and muscle tremors, might be eased. She is the recipient of a recent grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Leaders Opportunity Fund, designed to attract and retain scholars in Canada.

“Parkinson’s disease can be treated effectively with a drug called L-dopa, which lessens the symptoms, but it also creates disabling side effects (such as hallucinations and extreme emotional states),” said Nash. “L-dopa is not the only way forward. We can do better.”

That’s why Nash and her team are focusing on finding the molecular roots of the disease. “We need to understand how motor control works in our bodies. To do that, we must determine the precise sequence of molecular mechanisms that occur to enable us to move. If we can do this, more effective targets for treatment of neurological disorders will be revealed.”

One of the challenges is the fact that by the time most people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s, more than 80 per cent of the dopamine cells are gone. So Nash is using rats to study healthy brains and those affected by Parkinson’s. It’s complex research that could easily lead to frustration.

There is no definitive evidence about factors that can cause Parkinson’s, as for example, cigarette smoking leads to lung cancer. There are clues – perhaps the head trauma boxers (like Muhammed Ali, a long-time Parkinson’s sufferer) experience. But there is nothing concrete – yet.

Still, this challenge does not bother Nash. She finds it motivating.

“The great thing about working in brain research is that you can go as far as your imagination goes. Forty years ago, the brain was a black box. We knew very little. But there have been great advances since then. We’re in a superb position now to make major discoveries in neuroscience.”

by Paul Fraumeni

© University of Toronto Scarborough