Sleep pattern points the way to Parkinson’s

SNCA genetic variance and the progression from REM sleep behaviour disorder to Parkinson disease

Dr. Ziv Gan-Or
Assistant Professor
McGill University
New Investigator Award
Funded in partnership with Pedaling for Parkinson’s
in Honour of Dr. John Newall
$90,000 over 2 years

Ziv Gan-Or was an MD-PhD student at Tel Aviv University when he encountered an unusual sleep disorder that piqued his curiosity. Known as REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD), most of the individuals who suffer from this condition go on to develop other conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies, aggregates of protein that build up in neurons and interfere with their function.

“In order not to act out our dreams, our brain shuts off our voluntary muscles during REM sleep, when we dream,” he explains. “People with RBD lose this inhibition and they do enact their dreams. It has become clear that what these people really have is the early stage of a neurodegenerative disease.”

Gan-Or, who is now an assistant professor at McGill University and a researcher in the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, was especially intrigued by the high levels of the protein α-synuclein found in the brains of these individuals. Since this kind of build-up has been directly associated with the onset of Parkinson’s disease, Gan-Or has spent the last few years establishing what will be the world’s largest study of RBD patients. Working with 18 centres all over the world, this undertaking has recruited more than 1,000 people with the ailment, as well as another 3,000 people without it, who will serve as control subjects.

This research will analyze the genetic makeup of all the participants, with a specific emphasis on the gene encoding α-synuclein. Because it is already known that most of those with RBD are likely to develop Parkinson’s disease at some point over the next decade, the resulting genetic patterns could reveal important indicators for conversion from RBD to Parkinson’s disease.

“We can identify people at risk at a much earlier stage,” he says. “This program is not intended to develop a drug but once there is a drug to prevent Parkinson’s disease, our study would help identifying patients at a much earlier stage.”

Gan-Or is also going to conduct a series of experiments to examine how α-synuclein spreads throughout the body. By outlining this process in detail, he suggests, it could become clear how to design treatments that would improve the lives of patients by halting the disease in its tracks.

“It will allow us to better understand how genetics affect progression,” he says. “It may serve as a target for future development of treatment, aimed at stopping α-synuclein progression.”