Dr. Penny MacDonald's study into REM sleep is inspiring hope
Dr. Penny MacDonald's study into REM sleep is inspiring further interest into the research of biomarkers, which can lead to earlier detection of Parkinson's disease and better treatments.

REM Sleep Study Reaps Benefits for Larger Research Community


If you have participated in Pedaling for Parkinson’s, you are familiar with the Pedaling for Parkinson’s Research Grant that your fundraising dollars help support. This month, we’d like to share an example of the vital research that your fundraising dollars make possible. And how funding provided by Jeff and Shelley Parr in memory of Dr. Robert Lorne Alexander through Pedaling for Parkinson’s and the Parkinson Canada Research Program has grown into a greater research investment.

Currently, treatments and therapies for Parkinson’s begin when a person is diagnosed. By then, symptoms have started to show, and the condition may have been progressing for several years; the dopamine-producing cells have already degenerated. If we could find a biomarker (a biological molecule found in blood, other body fluids, or tissues) of the disease earlier, we could do more to improve treatments.

This idea is at the core of the study Dr. Penny MacDonald and her team at Western University are conducting around rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behaviour disorder and Parkinson’s. Individuals with REM sleep behaviour disorder act out their dreams while asleep, often kicking, punching, and flailing. While it is a relatively rare condition, up to 80 per cent of people with this disorder will develop Parkinson’s, multiple systems atrophy or Lewy body dementia. Dr. MacDonald and her team are using MRI technology to scan the brains of those with the condition, looking for differences that could lead to a biomarker for Parkinson’s.

Identifying such a biomarker might allow patients to start treatment earlier, explains Abdullah Al-Jaja, a PhD student in MacDonald’s lab working on this project. “More importantly, patients would have more time to cope with the disease. Imagine a person being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and the first thing they see are the tremors. By that point, we are trying to supplement what’s lost. Imagine the change in the quality of life for these people if we discover something earlier that we can use to help them.”

This project, funded by the Pedaling for Parkinson’s Research Grant of $32,984 in , has also had a cascade effect on the lab’s other projects – allowing them to leverage this initial funding to support even more research.

“Funding like this from Parkinson Canada not only helps us do one individual project, it helps us do a bunch of different things,” says Dr. Kasey Van Hedger, who is doing her postdoctoral studies with MacDonald. “Any funding that comes into the lab is allotted into the different avenues we’re working on, and it opens up a lot of different opportunities.”

In addition, the team benefits from the BrainsCAN initiative at Western, which is a 7-year, $66 million investment from the Government of Canada through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. This initiative provides the team with access to top-of-the-line imaging technology.

The team performs scans at the Centre for Functional Metabolic Mapping at the Robarts Research Institute, using Tesla MRI machines with giant magnets. The benefits? These MRI machines provide a clearer picture of the brain, and the team is not competing for time with patients needing medical MRIs. The funding from BrainsCAN lowers the significantly higher cost for researchers to use these MRI machines.

This type of savings expands the lab’s ability to work on the REM study and other research programs. And, while COVID forced them to stop in-person research, the team is excited to return as soon as it is safe to do so.

The lab has also secured significant additional funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to continue the work of the REM study and further research into potential biomarkers of Parkinson’s – a positive sign that the funding body recognizes the promise in this research. It also speaks to the primary aim of the team’s work – to improve the lives of those with Parkinson’s. “It’s about doing what’s best for Parkinson’s patients, finding out what’s going to help them,” says Ab-Jaja. “The funding you are giving us is helping us to answer these questions.”

Your funding supports research programs like those conducted in Dr. MacDonald’s lab; research dollars are being leveraged to make every dollar count. Our combined efforts bring us one step closer to earlier diagnosis, better treatments and ultimately, a cure – No Matter What.

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