Sarah Coakeley, Master’s student
University of Toronto (Centre for Mental Health and Addictions)
Supervisor: Dr. Antonio Strafella
Porridge for Parkinson’s (Toronto) Graduate Student Award : $30,000 over two years

Positron Emission Tomography Imaging of Pathological Tau in Parkinsonisms

For most people with a classic form of Parkinson’s disease, medication helps control their symptoms. At least two other progressive brain disorders have similar symptoms, though, and the same medication isn’t as effective – but researchers can’t yet distinguish between the diseases.

At the University of Toronto and the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, neuroscientist Sarah Coakeley is using imaging technology to develop a diagnostic test for progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP. PSP is one of the rare disorders that affects movement and may initially appear to be Parkinson’s. People with PSP deteriorate more rapidly than people with Parkinson’s, however, and dopamine replacement therapy doesn’t control their symptoms for long.

Coakeley, a Master’s student, uses Positron Imaging Technology (PET) to scan the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease, people whose brains are healthy, and people who have already been diagnosed with either PSP or multiple system atrophy, another rare disorder. The people participating in the study are injected with a special radioactive dye that binds to Tau, a protein in the brain that clumps up in brain cells of people with these neurodegenerative diseases.

Coakeley hopes to find a correlation between how much dye binds to Tau in the brains of the people in the different groups in her study. If there are more clumps of the protein in the brains of people with progressive supranuclear palsy, as she suspects, the imaging test would help to diagnose that disease.

“It will give them a more accurate prognosis, so they are prepared for this rapid disease progression,” she says.

Coakley was captivated by the power of medical imaging when she volunteered as a student at an MRI clinic. Now, she’s fascinated by the stories of the people she works with.

“I didn’t realize until I actually started seeing patients in my project how important this was, and how willing these people are to do research that’s not going to benefit them, but could possibly benefit people in the future,” Coakeley says. “That’s what really motivates me,” she says.