The link with REM sleep behaviour disorder

Preclinical biomarkers of Parkinson’s disease in patients with REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder

Erind Alushaj
PhD Student
Western University
Graduate Student Award
$20,000 over 2 years

Rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder (RBD) is a condition in which patients thrash about while acting out dreams. Within the first 10 years of being diagnosed with the disorder, people are at high risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

At Western University, neuroscience graduate student Erind Alushaj is using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of people with the sleep disorder, known as RBD. He’s comparing scans of patients with RBD to scans of people with Parkinson’s disease.

The MRI scans will focus on changes to iron levels and structural connections in the areas of the brain, such as the substantia nigra, that Parkinson’s disease most affects.

Researchers believe higher-than-normal levels of iron and damage to the structural connections in the substantia nigra are both connected to Parkinson’s disease.

If the changes Alushaj finds are similar in the brains of both people with RBD and Parkinson’s, his work will solidify the link between the two diseases.

“At around the 10-year-mark of their diagnosis, the majority of REM sleep behaviour disorder patients will have converted, or gotten, Parkinson’s disease.

The research findings may help with earlier diagnosis of people at risk of Parkinson’s.

“Another way this research could help is by ensuring individuals who are at high risk of developing Parkinson’s are included in clinical trials developing neuro-protective or preventative treatment,” says Alushaj.

When Alushaj was in Grade 12, his grandfather, who lives in Albania, was diagnosed with dementia.

“During that time, I became really interested in the brain, as you might imagine,” Alushaj says.

He found it particularly frustrating that doctors could not say for sure what type of dementia his grandfather has, because diagnosis is often confirmed only after death.

His grandfather’s illness helped motivate Alushaj’s career in neuroscience and fuels his interest in helping to find earlier methods of diagnosis.

“We’re trying to find ways to diagnose people earlier on, as well as to predict who will go on to develop Parkinson’s disease, with a high enough level of confidence that we could start treatment years before the first motor symptoms appear,” Alushaj says.

How your support made this research project possible

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been difficult to continue with a lot of research projects, so any financial support is much appreciated,” says Alushaj. “It’s really important to contribute to this type of research because the way we’re currently diagnosing Parkinson’s is coming late. The majority of the (brain) cells may have already degenerated. We’re trying to improve diagnosis and catch these diseases earlier. Hopefully, by applying treatment methods earlier in the Parkinson’s disease timeline, we’re able to provide people with a better quality of life.”

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