Hot Topics at World Parkinson’s Congress Span Key Research Findings to Children’s Books

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by Magdalena Kegel |

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World Parkinson's Congress

The 4th World Parkinson Congress, held in Portland, Oregon, on Sept. 20-23, opened each day with a Hot Topics session, with the general public invited to listen to research presentations of particular interest.

Topics ranged from complex scientific studies to children’s books, and a few of them caught the eye of Parkinson’s News Today.

Richard Smeyne, PhD, a professor in the Department of Neurosciences and director of the Jefferson Comprehensive Parkinson’s Center at Thomas Jefferson University, presented a study indicating that a previous infection with influenza may render dopamine neurons more sensitive to a second harmful event.

The study, “Influenza vaccine or Oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) can protect against microglial activation and a subsequent increase in oxidative stress susceptibility of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra following infection with the non-neurotropic H1N1 influenza virus,” underscored that while the common influenza (in 2009 and 2014, the dominant strain was H1N1) is not infecting neurons, studies have shown that an infection activates brain cells called microglia — the main type of immune cell in the brain.

During an infection, microglia are also activated in the Parkinson’s affected brain region substantia nigra, and to determine if this has any long term consequences, Smeyne infected mice with the H1N1 influenza virus. A control group of mice was exposed to a salt solution instead of virus.

The mice were allowed to recover, and 30 days after the infection, they were injected with a chemical that triggers Parkinsonism, called MPTP. Mice who had a previous influenza infection lost more dopamine neurons than control mice.

This suggested that although the influenza virus did not cause neurons to die, it made neurons more vulnerable when exposed to a factor that could kill them.

To further test this idea, researchers gave some mice an influenza vaccine specific for the H1N1 type or Tamiflu (oseltamivir), used to treat influenza once someone is infected. Both types of drugs protected mice from the brain inflammation caused by microglia activation, and Tamiflu also protected mice against the combined effect of influenza and MPTP.

The study supports the idea that Parkinson’s disease is the result of multiple insults to the brain, and provides yet another reason why it may be wise to get vaccinated against the seasonal flu.

Another Hot Topics focused on technology solutions for patients. The talk, “Moving Through Glass: Exploring augmented reality technology for people with Parkinson’s,” indicated that wearable technology may become common solutions to help patients deal with their disability.

The topic was presented by David Leventhal, a former dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), and the program director as well as one of the founding teachers of MMDG’s Dance for Parkinson’s Disease program.

Early research suggests that dance may provide Parkinson’s patients with a range of cues that help them to initiate and maintain certain kinds of movements. But since patients spend most of their time outside dance classes, a group of dance professionals, design specialists, and programmers got together to create a smartphone application. The app was built on the Google Glass platform, aiming to provide cues for initiation of movement through a portable, private augmented reality tool.

The app, called Moving Through Glass, allows patients to better use cues and rhythmic strategies, which the developers hope will increase the feeling of control and independence among users.

The app has been tested by groups at Stanford Medical Center, Syracuse University, and Weill Cornell Medical Center, and Leventhal spent part of the session discussing the benefits and downsides of the app. Lessons learned from the initial studies may serve as a set of best practices for the development of wearable technology aids for Parkinson’s patients.

The presentation also encouraged discussions of questions on how to best continue with the development of such aids.

A presentation by John Duda, associate professor of neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, took on a topic that may turn out to be a future solution to Parkinson’s management.

The talk, “Can Living Micro-Tissue Engineered Axonal Tracts Reconstruct the Nigrostriatal Pathway in PD?, described how researchers managed to grow a complete nigrostriatal pathway — the nerve cell network that is degenerating in Parkinson’s — in the lab.

Using a three-dimensional scaffold, Duda and his team grew networks, including dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra (where the cell bodies of nerve cells reside) and their long processes called axons, sending information to the striatum.

The networks, which are less than half the diameter of a deep brain stimulation electrode, were injected into the corresponding brain region in rats. So far, the transplanted nerve cell networks have survived for one month, keeping their initial organization.

The research team continues to study the implanted neurons, assessing how the rats behave and how their new neurons signal. The team is also studying how the transplanted neurons integrate with the neurons already present in the brain.

Although the results are in early stages, the study shows it is possible to grow and transplant intact nerve cell networks, which may one day be used to lessen Parkinson’s symptoms.

Finally, Adele Hensley, a book author and herself a Parkinson’s patient — diagnosed at the early age of 38 — spoke about the Annotated Bibliography of the children’s literature about Parkinson’s Disease in her non-scientific Hot Topics talk “How are we going to tell the children? An overview and review of the Children’s literature about Parkinson’s disease.”

Although Parkinson’s is a disease striking adults, and most often older people, patients often have children or grandchildren, with whom conversations about the disease may be difficult to initiate.

Each book in the bibliography can be used as a starting point for a conversation about Parkinson’s, and books range from fact-based to mostly fictional. Their topics also range from more general, such as “what is Parkinson’s,” to very specific. Hensley included notes on recommended ages or reading levels.

Many more Hot Topics were presented during the congress, and a full list is available at the WPC2016 Hot Topics page.

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