Dr. Antonio Strafella,
University of Toronto (Toronto Western Research Institute)
Pilot Project Grant: $45,000 (1 year duration)

PET imaging of translocator protein 18kDA (TSPO) in Parkinson’s disease

One of the perplexing problems concerning Parkinson’s disease is why some people who have it develop visual hallucinations, impulse control issues or cognitive problems, and other people with Parkinson’s do not. At Toronto’s University Health Network, Dr. Antonio Strafella is investigating the role of inflammation in contributing to the different outcomes.

Strafella, a neurologist, holds a Canada Research Chair in Movement Disorders and Neural Imaging at the University of Toronto. He’s using an advanced form of imaging, called Positron Emission Tomography, or PET, to scan the brains of people with Parkinson’s. With the help of a new, radioactive ligand, or tracer that adheres to certain receptors in the brain, Strafella hopes to identify the specific mechanisms associated with inflammation in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease. These tracers are visible in the PET scan and highlight those receptors to which they have attached.

Some studies have already shown that inflammation plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease. “There is evidence from preclinical investigations that neuroinflammation may also play a role in Parkinson’s disease,” Strafella says.

Eventually, Strafella hopes his research could suggest a new avenue for a drug target. Inflammation in the brain could also serve as a biomarker which, when flagged through a non-invasive PET scan, could help predict the way Parkinson’s will progress for a particular individual.

“It could be a biomarker to say that if you have severe inflammation, the prognosis is probably not very good – and if you don’t have too much inflammation, the prognosis is better,” Strafella says.

People with Parkinson’s always ask Strafella questions about the quality of their life in the future – questions Strafella can’t answer with any certainty now. He has long been fascinated by behaviour and cognition, and understands that his patients find symptoms associated with these aspects of Parkinson’s even more troubling than their lack of motor control.

“We don’t have any treatment for the non-motor aspects of the diseases, which is why there is a need to study these problems at the moment,” he says.