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$1.2m Funding Boost For Parkinson's Disease Study

University of Canterbury-led research that could help Parkinson’s disease patients learn more about their risk of dementia has received a million-dollar funding boost.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC), a Crown agency, has awarded a project grant of $1.189 million over four years to a multi-disciplinary team investigating predictors of cognitive health for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Lead researchers University of Canterbury (UC) Psychology Professor John Dalrymple-Alford and Neurology Professor Tim Anderson from the Department of Medicine, University of Otago, are working on the study in partnership with colleagues at the New Zealand Brain Research Institute (NZBRI) in Christchurch.

The professors are co-leaders of the longitudinal research programme on Parkinson’s disease. Professor Dalrymple-Alford says the goal of the new study is to provide a more accurate prognosis for patients.

“The first question many people often ask following their diagnosis is, ‘Will I get dementia?’ Knowing who is at risk of rapid decline is important for that person and their whānau and the management of their condition.”

The new study, due to start later this year, will involve 170 Parkinson’s disease patients along with 50 age-matched healthy people as a control group.

“This funding will be a major boost to this kind of research. We plan to use a unique combination of biomarkers to help predict cognitive impairment in people with Parkinson’s disease,” Professor Dalrymple-Alford says.

“The problem with this condition is that the cognitive impact on patients is quite variable from one person to another. Sometimes deterioration can take 20 to 30 years, in others it can be just a few years. Some people never experience impairments that affect their ability to lead a normal life.

“We need to understand more about the nature of that variability and be able to determine who is most at risk. That would allow clinicians to intervene early to give them effective support and treatment at the right time.”

Knowing more about a patient’s condition would also allow specialists to better determine which interventions are working, he says.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. An extra burden is that most patients also develop cognitive impairments that can often progress to dementia and loss of their independence.

This is because some of the critical pathways that enable co-ordination between brain regions to support cognition begin to deteriorate.

Most people are diagnosed in their mid-60s and within 10 years about half of all patients will have declined significantly or progressed to dementia.

About 12,000 people are currently diagnosed with Parkinson’s but Professor Dalrymple-Alford says with New Zealand’s ageing population this is predicted to nearly double by 2040 to about 20,000 people.

At present there are no reliable predictors for future cognitive health in individual patients but Professor Dalrymple-Alford and Professor Anderson and their team plan to bring together three innovative brain biomarkers in a bid to predict cognitive health for patients three years into the future.

Their previous work has shown that this time-frame is long enough to identify many who are at imminent risk of significant decline.

With Dr Tracy Melzer and Dr Reza Shoorangiz at the NZBRI, they will use a unique combination of electro-encephalography (EEG) measures of electrical activity in different areas in the brain and specialised structural MRI. These measures will be combined to assess the function and integrity of key brain structures and pathways.

This new study is an evolution of related work on cognitive impairment that is funded by the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand and Brain Research New Zealand – Rangahau Roro Aotearoa.

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