UNMC researcher uses neuroimaging for glimpse into Parkinson's disease

by Lisa Spellman, UNMC public relations | May 24, 2013

Image with caption: Tony Wilson, Ph.D.

Tony Wilson, Ph.D.

A UNMC research team has found a way to monitor brain injuries that occur in Parkinson's disease, providing clinicians a rare glimpse into the disease process.

By using magnetoencephalography (MEG) imaging, Tony Wilson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UNMC Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience and lead study investigator, was able to pinpoint the regions of the brain affected by the disease.

The results of Dr. Wilson's research were published in Journal Cerebral Cortex, one of the top-ranked neuroscience journals.

In the yearlong study, Dr. Wilson and colleagues scanned the brains of 19 patients with Parkinson's and 16 without to see how different regions of the brain were involved in the initiation of basic movements.

Using MEG imaging, the investigative team identified the regions of the brain that became engaged when the person performed a simple hand movement.

"The scans revealed that patients with Parkinson's disease had clear deficits in critical brain centers during the movements," Dr. Wilson said.

Now that the specific regions of the brain affected by Parkinson's have been identified, the next step is to develop medications designed to slow the disease's progression.

"Up to this point, we have not had a foolproof way of diagnosing or monitoring Parkinson's. The hope is that this will become a biomarker that will aid clinicians in determining the best therapeutic methods to use for their patients," he said.

"This research provides an exciting new avenue for translational research," said Howard Gendelman, M.D., chairman of the UNMC department of pharmacology and experimental neuroscience and co-investigator on the study.

For more than 12 years, Dr. Gendelman and his team have worked to not only understand Parkinson's disease progression but also to slow it through immune therapy. The work would not have been possible without a vigorous collaboration between neurologists, statisticians, psychologists and neuroscientists.

"Nebraska is perhaps one of the few research centers worldwide that boasts of so many people with divergent interests able to work together so effectively," Dr. Gendelman said.

He said this new technique will aid his research team's work into a therapy that has been proven in mouse models to reverse the neurodegenerative effects of the disease by changing the body's immune response.

The study's participating authors included: Elizabeth Heinrichs-Graham, a Ph.D. trainee and student in the neuroscience and behavior program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha; UNMC neurologists Pamela Santamaria, M.D., and Diego Torres-Russotto, M.D.; and UNMC statistician Jane Meza, Ph.D.

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