Reopened Udall Center at U-M Will Study Falls, Cognitive Impairment

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by Margarida Maia, PhD |

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The University of Michigan (U-M) will use a five-year, $11.7 million grant to reopen its Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson’s Disease Research, according to a university press release.

The grant, from the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS), will fund research on falls and other gait and cognitive problems commonly experienced by people living with Parkinson’s.

“Up to 70 percent of patients with Parkinson disease fall each year, quadrupling the rate of hip fractures, leading to extended hospitalizations, increased use of skilled nursing facilities and eventual nursing home placement and increasing the risk of death,” according to the university.

“This grant funds four interrelated projects designed to better understand the relationship between falls, other gait problems, cognitive impairments, and deficits of different populations of brain acetylcholine cells,” the university said. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter in the brain.

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The multidisciplinary team of researchers at U-M will be led by Roger Albin, MD, a professor of neurology and co-division chief of the school’s Parkinson’s Foundation Research Center of Excellence.

Parkinson’s is a slowly progressive and neurodegenerative disease that occurs when neurons in a specific area of the brain called the substantia nigra start to malfunction or die. Some of these neurons make dopamine, a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger that sends signals to neurons that control movement.

Its loss results in motor symptoms, such as tremor, stiffness (rigidity), slowness of movement (bradykinesia), and difficulty keeping balance and gait, which increase the risk of falling. Besides motor problems, people with Parkinson’s also experience non-motor symptoms such as cognitive impairment.

Research done at U-M has gone a step further and shown that falls and other gait problems may be linked to acetylcholine, another neurotransmitter. People need a balance of acetylcholine and dopamine to be able to control movements. A loss of acetylcholine also may impair cognition and its integration with motor performance.

Now, Albin will use brain imaging to find how a loss of acetylcholine causes cognitive impairment. The goal is to identify those who are at greater risk for faster disease progression.

In parallel work, Omar Ahmed, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and biomedical engineering, will study the role of acetylcholine in spatial navigation, or the ability to track changes in position and move in the environment.

Nicolaas Bohnen, MD, PhD, and Kirk Frey, MD, PhD, both professors of radiology and neurology, will use new brain imaging methods to show that the loss of various types of brain cells is linked to falls and other gait and cognitive problems — including a loss of the ability to pay close attention to one’s movements and surroundings or to perceive other relevant information.

Using animal models, Martin Sarter, PhD, professor of neuroscience and psychology, will seek to understand how cognition and movement integrate to lead to a coordinated gait.

There are five Udall Centers across the U.S., established in memory of Morris K. “Mo” Udall, a U.S. representative from Arizona who died from Parkinson’s in 1998. NINDS had previously funded the U-M Udall Center from 2015 to 2020.

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