A new, non-invasive way to track the progression of Parkinson’s disease could help evaluate experimental treatments to slow or stop the disease’s progression.
University of Florida researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to reveal areas where Parkinson’s disease and related conditions cause progressive decline in brain activity.
The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, was published in the journal Neurology.
While current treatments focus on controlling symptoms, biomarkers provide a quantifiable way to measure how medications address not just symptoms, but the neurological changes behind them.
Previous studies have used imaging techniques that require the injection of a drug that crosses the blood-brain barrier.
“Our technique does not rely upon the injection of a drug. Not only is it non-invasive, it’s much less expensive,” said David Vaillancourt, Ph.D., a professor in UF’s Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology and the study’s senior author.
The study’s authors – which included researchers from UF’s College of Health and Human Performance and College of Medicine as well as the Medical University of South Carolina – used functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate five areas of the brain that are key to movement and balance. A year after the baseline study, the 46 Parkinson’s patients in the study showed declining function in two areas: the primary motor cortex and putamen. Parkinson’s-related disorders evaluated in the study also showed declines: The 13 subjects with multiple system atrophy had reduced activity in three of the five areas, while the 19 with progressive supranuclear palsy showed declines in all five areas. The brain activity of the 34 healthy control subjects did not change.
“For decades, the field has been searching for an effective biomarker for Parkinson’s disease,” said Debra Babcock, M.D., Ph.D., program director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “This study is an example of how brain imaging biomarkers can be used to monitor the progression of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders.”
The finding builds on a 2015 UF study that was the first to document progressive deterioration from Parkinson’s via MRI, showing an increase in unconstrained fluid in an area of the brain called the substania nigra. An NIH-funded study beginning in November will use both biomarkers to test if a drug approved for symptom relief can slow or stop progressive degeneration.
Katrina Gwinn, M.D., also a program director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, described the effort to identify biomarkers as “an essential part of moving towards the development of treatments that impact the causes, and not just the symptoms, of Parkinson’s disease.”
Grace Everitt is helping University of Florida engineering students participate in SpaceX’s Hyperloop competition. She isn’t doing it for course credit or because it will look good on her résumé.
She believes she’s a part of something special.
Said Everitt: “It’s human history in the making.”
Everitt, who received a bachelor’s degree in marketing (Magna Cum Laude) from Warrington at Saturday’s Commencement, serves as the Marketing, Public Relations and Sponsorship Lead for Gatorloop, UF’s entry in Hyperloop. Out of a field of more than 1,500 teams worldwide, Gatorloop is one of only 29 entrants to advance to the final round.
Hyperloop is the brainchild of SpaceX and Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, whose vision is to build a high-speed, ground transportation system run almost entirely on solar power. Passengers and cargo would travel in pods at transonic velocities. The speeds are so great it would, for example, reduce a six-hour drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles to 30 minutes.
Everitt heard about Gatorloop in the fall, but her studies and other commitments kept her from participating. She came aboard in the spring when she noticed the team’s GoFundMe page had stalled around $1,200. Fortuitously, Everitt was enrolled in Professor Dennis DiPasquale’s Sales Management course, which centers on a semester-long fundraising project, and believed she could apply some of the tactics she learned to help Gatorloop.
Since Everitt took over Gatorloop’s fundraising duties, donations have quintupled and have reached $6,000-plus. But costs to purchase parts and manufacture the pod are steep, so Everitt’s new goal is to raise $20,000 before the competition scheduled for January 2017.
Relying on the tactics she learned in Sales Management, Everitt sought out smaller donations from a large pool of supporters to give an immediate boost to the fund. But with the competition a few months away and approximately $14,000 still to be raised, Everitt is shifting her focus to the corporate sector in hopes of attaining larger-size gifts.
“This has been a great opportunity to flex my skills, and practically apply what I’ve learned,” Everitt said.
Everitt’s enthusiasm for Gatorloop and space transport and exploration is palpable. While some may view ideas like Hyperloop as lofty and unattainable, Everitt said these types of projects are closer to becoming reality than most might think. She also has an affinity for Musk, not only for his grandiose vision but because he comes from the South African province of Transvaal, where Everitt’s family has roots.
“When you go see a movie like ‘The Martian’ with Matt Damon, that’s not fantasy,” Everitt said. “We’re definitely moving in a direction where that’s a real possibility.”
Everitt said her work with the Gatorloop team has impacted her career aspirations as well.
“I always assumed that there wasn’t room for me in the space exploration industry because I wasn’t a STEM person, but that’s simply not true, and I want to share this awareness with other business students who also might have varied interests,” Everitt said.