I’m going back to my alma mater, Stanford University, for a reunion. So I thought I’d poke around and see what they are doing in Parkinson’s research these days. Stanford, home of the integrated circuit and the birth control pill, was no slouch in the sciences when I was there. But over the last decade or so, it has become a powerhouse of biological research, especially in the neurosciences. This post will describe some intriguing current projects dealing with Parkinson’s. A future post will cover a larger perspective on funding and topics for brain research at Stanford (featuring a special guest!)
Messed up Mitochondria — Mitochondria are the “power packs” of cells, including nerve cells (neurons). Xinnan Wang, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurosurgery., led a team that located a neuron defect prevalent in Parkinson’s patients. The neuron can’t get rid of a worn out mitochondria; instead the aging jalopy of a mitochondria starts spewing out toxic pollutants and eventually causes the neuron to die. The defect may provide a biomarker for Parkies. Biomarkers are an objective measurement of a medical condition, typically using a body fluid sample, like blood or urine. There is no biological dipstick (yet) to measure how low your brain is on dopamine –this is why biomarkers are the Holy Grail of Parkinson’s research.
Dancing Doctor — Helen Bronte-Stewart, MD, MS — Besides being a movement disorders specialist, a neurologist specializing in Parkinson’s, and a Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) specialist, Dr. Bronte-Stewart has a background in dance. She brought the Dance for Parkinson’s program to Stanford, and she also runs the Balance Center, which features something called Computerized Dynamic Posturography. This measures in an objective way the factors that go into your sense of balance. Bronte-Stewart’s lab has developed several quantitative metrics of movement disorders such as bradykinesia, tremor, and freezing of gait Recent advances in wearable physiosensors and sensing neurostimulators are now enabling her lab to study the brain’s effect on PD motor signs in real time in freely moving human subjects. This research is leading to the identification of plausible biomarkers of different movement abnormalities and more precise, targeted therapy using Deep Brain Stimulation.
New way to map brain circuits — Jin Hyung Lee , PhD, associate professor of neurology, has a particularly apt background to map brain circuits: neuroscientist AND electrical engineer. Lee’s circuit-mapping approach combines two experimental tools with a computational method. The first tool is optogenetics, which modifies specific types of neurons so they can be turned on in response to light. The second tool is called functional MRI, or fMRI, which measures blood flow in the brain. Increased blood flow is associated with increased activity. Using optogenetics to turn on a specific type of neuron, and fMRI to observe how other regions of the brain responded, Lee then used a computational analysis to map the entire, specific neural circuit and also determine its function. This new mapping technique should help to better understand functions of neurons involved in Parkinson’s and enable neurosurgeons to more precisely target Deep Brain Stimulation.