Mapping sleep disturbance in the brain

David Rémillard-Pelchat
PhD Candidate
Université du Québec à Montréal
Graduate Student Award
Funded in partnership with Fonds de recherche du Québec - Santé
$10,000 over 2 years
Neuroanatomical substrates of electroencephalographic abnormalities related to the development of dementia in Parkinson’s disease

Unusual electrical activity in the brain during REM sleep is one of the earliest predictors of which people with Parkinson’s disease will develop dementia.

Researchers still don’t know, however, what parts of the brain are responsible for these electrical disturbances, or exactly how they relate to Parkinson’s.

At the Université du Québec à Montréal, PhD student David Rémillard-Pelchat, a neuropsychologist, is using brain imaging technology and electroencephalograms (EEGs) to plot the relationship between the unusual brain activity during REM sleep cycles and the structures of the brain itself.

“Sleep is often considered a passive process, but it’s not; it’s an active process,” he says. “During sleep the brain works differently. Some physiological processes occur that can tell us about dementia.”

Rémillard-Pelchat will use Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to identify any parts of the brain, such as the thalamus, the brainstem, or the neocortex, that are atrophied. He will then compare those to the EEGs of people beginning to experience these sleep disturbances.

He hopes to pinpoint exactly which areas of the brain are involved in the sleep disturbances, as a way of creating a biomarker that could predict who will develop dementia, long before they do.

This knowledge could one day determine which people with Parkinson’s should receive any new treatments or therapies.

“We will be able to target specific brain areas or processes to treat earlier so we can slow down or prevent dementia in Parkinson’s disease, which is one of the most debilitating symptoms for quality of life,” Rémillard-Pelchat says.

“Sleep is often considered a passive process, but it’s not, it’s an active process. During sleep the brain works differently. Some physiological processes occur that can tell us about dementia.”

Diagnosing the likelihood of dementia earlier would also give people more time to prepare for its onset, Rémillard-Pelchat says.

Recently, his grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He is sharply aware of the impact of dementia.

Rémillard-Pelchat has always been intrigued by the brain, which is the reason he opted for a career in neuropsychology. He began to work on Parkinson’s disease because of his interest in its non-motor symptoms like sleep disturbances and cognitive problems.

“These are some of the most debilitating symptoms and they should be better known and better understood,” he says.