Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects nearly 1 million people in the United States and more than 6 million people worldwide. While Parkinson’s disease is most widely known to be a motor disorder causing individuals to experience rigidity and difficult moving, there are many other symptoms including digestive issues, sleep problems, and mood changes. With a growing interest in Parkinson’s disease, we spoke with Dr. Laura Volpicelli-Daley, Civitan researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at UAB.
Since bringing her lab to the Civitan International Research Center in 2012, Dr. Volpicelli-Daley has focused mainly on a protein called alpha-synuclein. Parkinson’s disease patients have Lewy bodies, which are globs of synuclein, that form in their brains. Dr. Volpicelli-Daley believes that by preventing the formation of these Lewy bodies, we can prevent Parkinson’s disease from developing in an individual.
While Dr. Volpicelli-Daley’s connection to neurodegenerative disorders is a personal one that stems from her mother living with dementia, her interest in neurodegenerative disease took hold as a graduate student in the lab of Allan Levey, MD,PhD and Chairman of Neurology at Emory University. As a senior scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, Volpicelli-Daley discovered how to recapitulate synuclein aggregation in neurons in a dish. This led to her being able to study the aggregates more closely and identify drug treatments that could prevent their formation.
“Now I’m working on the intersection of Parkinson’s disease and some of the cognitive changes that occur in Parkinson’s disease,” explains Dr. Volpicelli-Daley. “While a cure or treatment has yet to be discovered for Parkinson’s, there are some symptomatic treatments currently on the market. Drugs like Sinemet help alleviate some of the motor symptoms, however it cannot stop the progression of the disease. After long term use, some patients may experience “off periods” where the drug is ineffective, and like any medication there are side effects, like abnormal movements. There’s no way to slow the progression of the disease. There’s no way to treat the cognitive changes and that is what makes you, you, and I think that is the scariest potential symptom.”
Lewy bodies in Parkinson’s disease were first described over 100 years ago. Up until twenty to thirty years ago, researchers believed that Parkinson’s disease was in no way related to an individual’s genetic makeup. Mutations in alpha-synuclein were discovered in 1997 that cause Parkinson’s disease. It was also discovered that alpha-synuclein was the main component of Lewy bodies. Genome wide association studies that look at small changes in DNA have led to the discovery that even small increases in alpha-synuclein can cause Parkinson’s disease. Treatment strategies are now being developed that target alpha-synuclein.
As with any disorder, early detection is key to better understanding the disease and its development to hopefully identify treatments to prevent the disease and slow its progression. The Michael J. Fox Foundation, a major supporter of Dr. Volpicelli-Daley’s lab, has taken a great interest in identifying early warning signs of Parkinson’s. Reduced hyposmia, constipation, and REM sleep behavioral disorder are some of the huge predictors of Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Volpicelli-Daley’s lab believes in the potential of stopping the progression of the disease by identifying Parkinson’s early on in a patient. This would prevent individuals with Parkinson’s from developing more severe motor symptoms or cognitive changes related to the disease.
The Volpicelli-Daley lab believes that the excellent basic science being conducted in the field of Parkinson’s disease by outstanding scientists across the world will lead to new clinical therapeutic developments to prevent the progression of PD, hopefully in the very near future.
To learn more about Dr. Volpicelli-Daley and her research on Parkinson’s disease, visit labs.uab.edu/volpicel/.