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New NIH Grant Means Relief for Parkinson’s Patients

NeuroMuscular Research Center funding totals $10 million

No cure exists for Parkinson’s disease and the symptoms associated with it: the shaking hands, facial tremors, and painful paralysis. But now, a team of doctors at the Boston University NeuroMuscular Research Center (NMRC) is poised to make daily life easier for patients suffering from Parkinson’s and other neuromuscular disorders, thanks to research that demystifies brain behavior, and two National Institutes of Health grants, totaling $6.5 million, that will help the BU group continue its work.

The grants, awarded through the NIH Biomedical Research Partnership (BRP), boost two NMRC projects launched by a previous  BRP award, and extend them both by five years. Both projects investigate Parkinson’s, stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and other disorders where the brain generates disorganized electrical signals that prompt abnormal muscle behavior.

“This research will change the world,” says Carlo De Luca, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering, NMRC director, and the principal investigator for both awards. “It could provide a paradigm shift in diagnostic technology for motor disorders. We will image the code of the motor activity in the brain.”

According to the National Parkinson Foundation, 1.5 million Americans suffer from Parkinson’s disease, with 60 thousand new cases diagnosed annually.

The first project will develop technology that uses a needle sensor inserted into a muscle to display the code of the electrical signals generated in the brain. The BU group has already succeeded in reading the brain-to-muscle transmissions associated with healthy muscle behavior; now the team hopes to crack the code for malfunctioning muscle behavior and begin to understand the language of motor disorder.

“Our ultimate objective is to distinguish the abnormal from the normal and to quantify the difference,” says De Luca, who compares the technology involved to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The difference, he says, is that while an MRI shows the alterations in the anatomy of a diseased brain,  the new technology will show how the injury alters the motor control that is regulated in the brain. Sharpening the accuracy of the diagnosis and early detection of a motor disorder will enable medications to be developed for halting brain disorders and improving motor control.

The second project aims to better assess and adjust treatment for the involuntary muscle movements in Parkinson’s patients. A new system of motion sensors worn on the body, developed by De Luca’s team, tracks erratic movements and muscle activity and determines how different levels of medication affect them. Currently, drugs such as Levodopa control the spasms and stiffness of the disease, but also present a host of unpleasant side effects, such as nausea and headaches.

“Physicians struggle to ascertain correct dosage levels because it is difficult to monitor patients’ movement between office visits,” says Serge Roy, an associate professor of research at the NMRC, and a co-investigator on the awards. “But after a patient wears the sensors, a physician could easily call up the record of movement during a given period and determine the dosage’s efficacy, just as he or she might prompt blood count details with a few keystrokes.”

The NMRC research was launched in 2000 with a previous BRP award of $3.5 million, making the BU group one of only three research teams in the country to hold two BRP grants simultaneously. The team members, including S. Hamid Nawab, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering and a co-investigator on the awards, Joe Jabre, a professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, and Peter Novak, a neurologist at Boston Medical Center, say that the grants offer a unique opportunity to further medical technology while providing new options for treatment and relief for patients suffering from motor disorders.

“These grants give me an opportunity to further explore the practical development of such algorithms in the context of a real, physiological problem,” says Nawab, who developed the algorithms that analyze the sensors’ data. “These are not simply theoretical exercises —  it’s great to have problems that have a real, practical consequence.”