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Continued: Researchers aim to make the U a major Parkinson's research center

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 3, 2014 - 5:52 PM

Meanwhile, he noted, Timothy Church in the U’s School of Public Health is working to create a statewide Parkinson’s registry, with plans to evaluate environmental and genetic factors.

“Specifically, if you have a gene variant and you metabolize pesticides slower, you’re more at risk,” Tuite said. “And if you have another gene variant and you have a head trauma, you’re at greater risk for Parkinson’s. So there are different genes and environmental [insults].”

Others at the U are pursuing drug research and new imaging techniques to track how the brain metabolizes drugs and disease progression, he said.

The research holds promise for a variety of neurodegenerative disorders, like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s, Vitek said. Research into one of these diseases often leads to insights in the others.

Consider the sleep research by Dr. Carlos Schenck, a psychiatrist at Hennepin County Medical Center, and Dr. Michael Howell, a U neurologist. In 1982, Schenck and Dr. Mark Mahowald made a groundbreaking discovery about people who act out their dreams — a condition called rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD). Schenck published a paper last year showing that 80 to 90 percent of people with the disorder will get Parkinson’s if they live long enough.

Ordinarily, the brain stem paralyzes body movements while people dream. That gets disabled in patients with RBD, Howell said, so they often act out violent dreams. At least 20,000 Minnesotans have the condition, Howell said.

Donald Spicer, a patient of his and Tuite’s, is among them. He said the sleep disorder is more unbearable than his freezing-of-gait.

“I beat the bed up until my hands are bloody,” Spicer said, and he has no idea why. “My wife is my memory.”

Jackie Spicer insisted that her husband enroll in the U’s research, and Drs. Tuite and Howell have helped get his symptoms under control.

“If it helps somebody else to know that there’s a light at the other end of the tunnel, then it’s worth it,” she said.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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  • Liz Ogren, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007, stands on a weight-sensitive floor while wearing reflective markers on her body so that her gait can be tested in the Movement Disorders Laboratory at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis April 25, 2014. (Courtney Perry/Special to the Star Tribune)

  • Dr. Colum MacKinnon tested Liz Ogren’s gait with reflective markers, high-speed cameras, muscle sensors and weight-sensitive flooring at the University of Minnesota.

  • focusing: Reflective markers are placed on patients so cameras can monitor precise action.

  • Dr. Colum MacKinnon secured a belay rope used for safety when testing a patient’s gait.

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