Parkinson’s disease is the second-most common degenerative brain disease, primarily caused by the death of certain brain cells. The majority of degeneration happens in a small region of the brain responsible for reward pathways and motor control. 1
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Associate Professor Kay Double from the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney, has dedicated her career to solving some of the mysteries of how and why neurodegenerative disorders develop. She aims to identify more effective treatments, and ultimately a cure, for these disorders. In 2006 she was highlighted in NHMRC’s Ten of the Best for her research into Parkinson’s disease.
Twelve years later, NHMRC decided to catch up with A/Professor Double to see what has changed in the understanding, treatment and prevention of Parkinson’s disease.
One of the major challenges of Parkinson’s disease is that it’s often diagnosed years after brain cells have begun to die. The disease can currently only be diagnosed after symptoms associated with movement—a tremor in the hands, arms or legs; a rigidity of muscles; and slowness of movement—develop.
‘People tend not to realise they are developing Parkinson’s disease for some time. They become a bit slow and stiff and think that is just a sign of ageing. Even their GP might say the same thing. It’s not until these symptoms becomes more marked they realise there is a disease underlying those symptoms and it is not a part of normal healthy ageing,’ she said.
Originally studying biochemistry to become a dietician, A/Professor Double became interested in neurodegenerative disorders, leading her down a completely different path into medical research.
‘It started off as an intellectual interest, and then I got involved in volunteering with the national and NSW Parkinson’s disease support groups,’ she said.
‘Over the years I got to know many people with Parkinson’s disease and developed a personal connection. This is why I think the research is so important and why I enjoy it.’
Part of what captivated A/Professor Double was that this disorder only affects specific parts of the brain. Parkinson’s disease is thought to result when the disease process reduces the ability of vulnerable cells to cope with everyday damage.
‘Parts of the brain are damaged by a particular disease process that exploits the vulnerability of these cells to stressors, such as oxygen radicals. The healthy neighbouring cells are more resilient and able to mop up those radicals before they cause damage,’ she explained.
‘It really is a massive destruction with 90 to 95 per cent of the vulnerable cells in the brain eventually being destroyed.’
‘A lot of my research over the last couple of decades has been investigating what makes these cells vulnerable and how to manage, or even prevent, the disease exploiting this vulnerability.
‘If we can understand that, we can increase the resilience of those cells. Then we can stop cells dying, slow the progression of the disease or even prevent the disease,’ she concluded.
NHMRC funding, through both Research Fellowships and Project Grants, has enabled A/Professor Double to understand more about how Parkinson’s disease affects the brain. She hopes her work will ultimately improve treatment options for patients who have already been diagnosed but also be used to develop treatment approaches which will one day prevent the disease.
‘NHMRC funding in medicine is so important here in Australia. The quality of Australian medical research is at an international level and has real-life benefits for patients and their families. It is an important industry for Australia that we are very good at,’ she said.