HEALTH SPOTLIGHT: Research continues into try to understand the cause of Parkinson's and how to treat it.
HEALTH SPOTLIGHT: Research continues into try to understand the cause of Parkinson's and how to treat it. LPETTET

Parkinson's researchers keep digging for answers

IT'S not curable yet, nor do we know what causes it, but early detection of the neurodegenerative disease Parkinson's is gaining some ground through the work of researchers at the Neuroscience Research Australia.

"We are looking for a particular signal from an area of the brain called the substantia nigra," NeuRA's leader researcher Professor Caroline Rae said. "It's one of the first areas to disappear when a person gets Parkinson's disease.

"Once someone has Parkinson's most of the substantia nigra is gone by that point."

The researchers have been measuring the number of connections between the substantia nigra and the other parts of the brain that it talks to. They have found a person with Parkinson's has about 10 connections where the healthy members of their control group have about 500.

The NeuRA team are aiming to narrow down the population to those that are more at risk of getting the progressive disease which attacks the nervous system and to help discover an effective treatment.

"All the treatments that are aimed at the substantia nigra aren't going to work as its not there anymore," Professor Rae said.

"Once we have a method of detecting it, we can keep measuring it to see if the treatment is actually working, if it stops deterioration.

"Once we know what is wrong with the brain then we can say these are the treatments that might work and we can start trialling them in people."

Volunteers needed

Professor Rae highlighted that researchers need to start looking at people in their 30s and 40s. "There is a huge gap in research of people in their 40s," Professor Rae said. "They don't have time to volunteer for research. We actually don't know very much about people aged between 35 and 50."

To help the NeuRA further their research into early detection of Parkinson's, Professor Rae is encouraging Seniors located in Sydney or can travel there, to volunteer their time by contacting Karl Aoun on 0452 266672 or email

How is Parkinson's managed

There aren't any tests for Parkinson's and it is still a guess as what causes it - possibly genetics and environmental factors - and Parkinson's Australia chief executive officer Steve Sant says age is unequivocally considered a significant factor in its onset.

"A definitive diagnosis of Parkinson's is quite hard," Mr Sant said. "There are some very non-specific symptoms which people may notice in the very early days of Parkinson's, such as constipation, depression, anxiety and even loss of your sense of smell," Mr Sant said. Parkinson's also isn't all about tremors. Mr Sant says about 30 per cent of all sufferers never have tremors.

Other symptoms are rigid muscles, slowness of movement and postural instability. Other non-motor symptoms can be gastro-intestinal problems, pain, fatigue and even sleep disturbances.

"If you some things that don't feel quite right, then talk to your GP about it to see if it is Parkinson's or something else." The GP may refer you on to a neurologist specialising in movement disorders.

For anyone wanting more information on Parkinson's, go to or call the Helpline on 1800 644 189.

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