Nicolas Giguère, Graduate Student,
Université de Montréal
Graduate Student Award: $30,000 over 2 years

Characterization of the selective vulnerability of dopamine neurons in Parkinson’s disease

The mysterious workings of the human brain have fascinated Université de Montréal doctoral student Nicolas Giguère since before he began his university education.

“The brain is a structure that we don’t know a lot about, and it’s just in the last 50 years that we’ve started to work a bit more on it at the cellular and molecular levels,” he explains. “When I find out that we don’t know something, I’m the kind of guy who wants to know.”

He began by exploring neuroscience at the cellular level, work that eventually took him to a laboratory devoted to studying the dynamics of Parkinson’s disease. Giguère found himself investigating how Parkinson’s compromises neurons in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. These cells handle much of the task of ensuring that dopamine is distributed throughout the brain, enabling the body to oversee actions such as the controlled movement of arms and legs.

“Neurons are dying in Parkinson’s, but it’s really the nigra ones that die in larger numbers,” he says. “It is the loss of nigra cells that has the greatest impact.”

Giguère speculates that the heavy task of providing dopamine to the brain means these cells are especially active, and could therefore be vulnerable to breakdown or other problems that lead to Parkinson’s disease. He has developed an experimental model to measure the full extent of the many connections these cells have in the brain, in order to learn more about just how hard they work.

This information is essential to developing treatments that will address the core of the problem, rather than simply trying to alleviate symptoms in a haphazard way. “I want to work on basic issues that will help us understand how the structure is working,” he says.

This graduate student award gives Giguère more confidence to design his testing procedures as he sees fit, so that he feels a greater level of responsibility for the work. It makes him all the more eager to discover whether the cells he is studying in the substantia nigra are the strained link in the brain’s neural network that allows Parkinson’s disease to gain a foothold.

“At the metabolic level, they’re really on the edge,” he says.