Consiglia Pacelli,
Postdoctoral fellow,
Université de Montréal
Basic Research Fellowship: $100,000 over two years

Exploring the role of high metabolic activity in dopamine neurons as a risk factor in Parkinson’s disease

Growing up in Italy, Consiglia Pacelli, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Université de Montréal, vividly recalls how Parkinson’s disease affected her grandfather. As her scientific career unfolded, she found herself revisiting his condition in a much different way.

“I didn’t go looking for a research job that deals with Parkinson’s disease,” she says. “But it was exciting to have this chance work on it, because I’m personally familiar with this problem and how it affects individuals and their families.”

Her work up to that point had focused on fibroblasts, a special kind of cell that produces the material that provides the structure of other cells. Specifically, she looked at mitochondria, the source of chemical energy found in all cells. When she took on her current position in Montreal, she was able to transfer her understanding of mitochondria to examine the brain cells that are affected by Parkinson’s disease.

Pacelli has found that in the substantia nigra, a particular part of the brain responsible for managing the crucial chemical dopamine, mitochondria work much harder than at other sites. She and her colleagues suspect that this high level of metabolic activity could make these neurons vulnerable to different forms of damage or breakdown that could lead to the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

“I’m trying to understand why so many of these nigra neurons die,” she explains. “Higher metabolism means more mitochondria energy production. These cells are more dependent on mitochondria, so if there is a problem with mitochondrial function in Parkinson’s disease, it makes sense that neurons of the substantia nigra might become rapidly compromised.”

Once researchers have a complete understanding about how the characteristics of mitochondria might contribute to the process of Parkinson’s disease, the search can begin for ways of preventing or reversing that process, she says.

“The next step would be to find some compounds to modulate this activity to prevent neural degeneration,” she says. “The grant allows me to continue this project and finish the work under ideal conditions.”