Mapping the brain to find an early diagnostic test for Parkinson`s disease


Dr. Daryl Wile, Clinical Fellow, University of British Columbia
Pedaling for Parkinson's Clinical Movement Disorders Fellowship
Clinical Movement Disorders Fellowship: $50,000

Scientific Title: Genetic and Neuroimaging Markers for Parkinson Disease: Correlation with Clinical Phenotype and Outcomes

By the time most people with Parkinson's develop the stiffness, tremors or rigidity commonly associated with the illness, they have likely had more subtle symptoms for many years. If researchers could develop an early diagnostic test, it would not only help people plan their care, it might benefit their treatment.

At the University of British Columbia, Dr. Daryl Wile, a neurologist, is spending a year as a clinical movement disorders fellow. He’s exploring the use of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to develop an early diagnostic test. Wile, who will also work with patients during his year-long fellowship, is searching for changes in the brain that occur even before people experience symptoms.

Wile will scan the brains of people who carry mutated forms of the gene LRRK2, which is associated with familial forms of Parkinson’s disease, before they develop symptoms. By using radioactive tracers attached to different chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, Wile will discover what regions of the brain struggle to transmit signals. He’ll compare these images to the PET scans of people without any genetic predisposition to Parkinson’s disease.

“We’re looking for abnormally low activity in certain brain regions where we know these cells live that make these neurotransmitters,” Wile says.

If Wile can detect differences in the PET scans of people who carry the mutated LRRK2 gene, he hopes those changes are replicated in the brains of people with other forms of Parkinson’s. That information would help him understand how Parkinson’s progresses early on, before obvious symptoms occur.

The scans could also predict why some patients are more likely to suffer from depression or cognitive disorders than others, depending upon what forms of neurotransmitters are less active in particular regions of the brain. Although lack of dopamine is considered the immediate cause of movement problems in Parkinson’s, abnormalities in other neurotransmitter systems such as serotonin might cause these other symptoms and might lead to dyskinesias, the involuntary movements many people with Parkinson’s suffer after several years.

Wile hopes his work will help people get the treatment they need more quickly, once researchers develop new therapies. “If there’s a treatment that’s shown to definitely delay the progression of the disease, then we would want to start that as early as possible,” Wile says.