A University of Rochester Medical Center research team has won a $4.9 million grant to pursue a decade-long Parkinson’s disease investigation.
The National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Strokes grant funds a 10-year project using fitness trackers, a special smartphone app and telemedicine to remotely track some 200 Parkinson’s patients.
Principal researcher Ruth Schneider M.D. says data collected will help researchers better understand how Parkinson’s symptoms advance.
Parkinson’s is the second-most-common neurodegenerative disease in the United States. Like the most-common disorder of its type, Alzheimer’s disease, it mostly affects adults 65 and older. But a significant minority—10 to 15 percent of Parkinson’s patients, like the actor Michael J. Fox who was diagnosed at 39—see the disease’s onset earlier.
Early symptoms include tremors, changes in gait and balance. In addition to greater intensity and frequency of the early effects, advanced symptoms include cognitive impairment and urinary incontinence. There is no cure for the disease and no definitive test to diagnose it. Neurologists “clinically” diagnose Parkinson’s by observing patients and studying their medical histories. A recently publicized diagnostic involving spinal fluid that shows promise is still in trials and not yet generally available.
Schneider says questions she hears most from patients as part of her UR Medicine practice concern whether or how soon they might start to experience advanced symptoms. Data gathered in the study she is overseeing now will help her to better answer such questions.
The study Schneider is now starting picks up from two unsuccessful clinical trials for drugs meant to slow the disease’s progression. Those trials were interrupted by COVID. Participants in the new study had begun as subjects in the two drug trials when they were at early stages. By continuing to amass data first collected from participants in the new study when they were in the now-ended drug trials, Schneider hopes to form a more complete roadmap of the disease’s progression.
Thought to be waning to the point of virtually disappearing in the 1960s, Parkinson’s instead has become the fastest-growing neurological disorder nationwide and globally. Why that’s so is not well understood.
A recent study found that the 90,000 Americans currently diagnosed annually with Parkinson’s is roughly 50 percent higher than the previous estimate of 40,000 to 60,000.
The causes of Parkinson’s are also incompletely understood. Head trauma and genetic mutations are known to be causes in some cases. The boxer Muhammad Ali is thought to have developed Parkinson’s as a result of blows he received in the ring. But such causes account for only a fraction of a growing number of Parkinson’s diagnoses.
URMC neurologist Ray Dorsey M.D. suggests that the past few decades’ spike in cases might be tied to pollution, specifically to widespread presence in water supplies of trichloroethylene, a chemical widely used as an industrial solvent, as an ingredient in adhesives and paint removers, and in dry cleaning.
In a paper published last month in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease, Dorsey and co-author Schneider point to TCE as a highly likely and significant factor in the disease’s rapidly increasing incidence.
In addition to adding to clinicians’ and researchers’ knowledge of how Parkinson’s progresses, Schneider says, her new study will help advance the use of remote tracking in research and treatment of Parkinson’s and other diseases.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].