PET project for Parkinson’s

PET project for Parkinson’s

Brain imaging is increasingly important as researchers move closer to finding treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s
January 27, 2014

Matthew Farrer was uneasy about how he would be received as he prepared to discuss genetic biology and DNA mutations with a large group of Dutch-German-Russian Mennonites in Saskatchewan in 2011. Afterwards, however, family members rolled up their sleeves to submit blood samples to The University of British Columbia (UBC) professor and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Neurogenetics and Translational Neuroscience. Their co-operation, and that of fellow Mennonites from across Canada, provided evidence leading to a key discovery. Parkinson’s disease — disproportionately high among Mennonites — is caused by a mutation in the DNAJC13 gene.

Since then, Mennonite members have further advanced Farrer’s studies into Parkinson’s by travelling to UBC to undergo positron emission tomography (PET) scans, which create a three-dimensional image of the brain. This research — to find the causes of, and an eventual cure for, Parkinson’s — also involves Farrer’s colleagues Jon Stoessl, director of the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre, and Vesna Sossi, a physicist and the imaging director of UBC’s PET Programme. The work was done in collaboration with Ali Rajput, professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Saskatchewan. The researchers discovered other mutations causing Parkinson’s, a disease that is becoming more prevalent in the general population due to aging, says Farrer.

PET scans are an important tool in the study of Parkinson’s, an incurable disorder that interferes with production of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, causing stiffness, shaking, difficulty walking, catatonia and clinical depression. UBC Hospital has two human-brain PET scanners — one was funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation — as well as a microPET for studying the brains of rodents with Parkinson’s symptoms. PET scans are especially useful in longitudinal studies of Parkinson’s, allowing researchers to study how the disease advances in asymptomatic individuals with atypical dopamine production in the brain, which indicates that the disease is present. This will greatly enhance an understanding of how Parkinson’s progresses, says Farrer.

Combining genetic information with medical imaging also helps researchers establish which other systems in the body are affected by Parkinson’s and identify the neurochemical processes that are first affected by the disease, which provides insight into its origin. Says Sossi: “There is an indisputable synergy between PET imaging and genetic studies.”