Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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NU given $2.1M to fund new Parkinson’s research

A $2.1 million grant for research on Parkinson’s disease gives Northwestern scientists the tools they need to fundamentally change how the disease is treated.

“If we’re right … it could also help prevent Parkinson’s disease, which is really our overall goal,” said James Surmeier, the main investigator and the chairman of the physiology department at NU’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

The recently-awarded grant from the Picower Foundation pays for the technology needed to test these theories, including a unique photon laser-scanning microscope that allows researchers to see inside living cells, Surmeier said.

Scientists already know that the disease, which prevents sufferers from being able to control their movements, is linked to a loss of dopamine cells in the brain. Surmeier and three other researchers want to find out why these dopamine cells are absent in the first place.

“The idea is that these neurons in Parkinson’s disease die because of some environmental stress of sorts,” he said. “The imaging technology allows us to peer into living cells to see how their interworkings are changing during stress.”

But elevated brain activity over a long period of time may exhaust the cells, he said.

“It’s a little bit like being forced to run the treadmill,” said Surmeier of the vulnerable dopamine cells. “If you were sick and not in good condition, you could potentially die from being pushed too hard.”

The researchers — including two other NU professors — hope to accelerate the aging process of dopamine cells to study how that contributes to their slow decrease.

“Some diseases can just sweep over you but not with Parkinson’s disease,” said Surmeier, explaining that symptoms usually begin to show in people more than 50 years old. “It takes decades to exert its effects. It’s a very slow loss of dopamine cells.”

About one in 100 people over 50 years old has Parkinson’s disease, Surmeier said, explaining the significance of such research. Symptoms range from tremors to difficulty walking or talking.

“Everybody knows somebody with Parkinson’s, even if it’s not diagnosed,” he said, adding that actor Michael J. Fox is probably the most high-profile patient with the disease.

The grant complements the efforts of the Morris K. Udall Parkinson’s Disease Research Center of Excellence at NU, of which Surmeier is the director.

The center was created last year when the university received a $5.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

— Erin Stock

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
NU given $2.1M to fund new Parkinson’s research