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January 2008 Issue

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Researchers Win Michael J. Fox Foundation Funding

Published January 2008

Researchers at UC have been awarded $70,000 to study whether a medication commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder could also improve walking in people with Parkinson’s.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research awarded the grant through its Rapid Response Innovation Awards program.

The study will be led by
Alberto Espay, MD, assistant professor of neurology at UC and physician-researcher at the James J. and Joan A. Gardner Center for Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders—part of the Neuroscience Institute at UC and University Hospital.

Parkinson’s results from the loss of brain cells that produce the natural neurotransmitter dopamine. Depressed dopamine levels cause these neurons to misfire, disrupting movement control.

Doctors often treat Parkinson’s patients with medications that increase dopamine production, but studies indicate that simply increasing dopamine doesn’t ease symptoms such as impaired gait, which may become a primary source of disability for patients.

“Current treatment strategies for Parkinson’s, particularly drugs designed to increase dopamine, have failed to provide patients with meaningful improvement in gait impairment,” says Espay.

“Parkinson’s isn’t just a disease of decreased dopamine production,” he adds. “Other neurotransmitters are affected.”

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies show that decreased concentrations of another neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, in the brain stem may also impair gait. Scientists believe norepinephrine is critical to the brain circuitry that controls gait.

Methylphenidate, a chemical found in many of the medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, works by increasing norepinephrine concentrations in the brain. Preliminary open-label studies suggest that methylphenidate may improve gait in people with Parkinson’s.

Espay and his team will study methylphenidate in a placebo controlled, double-blind study to help determine the medication’s effectiveness at improving gait.

The researchers will analyze movement using a gait analysis system comprising a computerized electronic walkway and sensors.

“We hope, based on what we know and have seen so far in other studies, that methylphenidate has the potential to improve quality of life for people with Parkinson’s,” says Espay.

Methylphenidate is Food and Drug Administration-approved
for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but not for treating Parkinson’s disease.

To learn more about this research, call (513) 558-7019.

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