#LoveIrishResearch marks World Parkinson's Day

Irish Research Council-funded Fellow, Dr Shane Hegarty, based in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, University College Cork

Imagine losing the ability to control your own movements. This is a reality for ~8,000 people in Ireland who suffer from Parkinson’s disease (PD), a progressive neurodegenerative disorder. At present Parkinson’s is incurable, with current treatments effectively controlling motor symptoms but not affecting disease progression. Moreover, in the next two decades, the number of people with Parkinson’s (PwPs) is expected to double. Therefore, the need for new therapies which can stop, slow or reverse the progression of PD has never been greater.

In Parkinson’s, an essential population of brain cells, called dopaminergic neurons, gradually die. These neurons produce dopamine, a chemical messenger/'neurotransmitter', which communicates with the brain to allow us control our voluntary movements. Progressive degeneration of dopaminergic neurons in PD leads to loss of dopamine in the brain, and loss of voluntary movement control. This means that PwPs cannot move in the way that they want, and cannot stop unwanted movements. Current Parkinson’s treatments involve replacement of lost dopamine with drugs that either become or mimic dopamine. However, their effects on movement symptoms wear off over time, lead to disabling side effects, and do not alter progression of Parkinson’s, which remains incurable.

The fact that PD results from the loss of a single population of brain cells provides the promising possibility that a cure may reside in finding a way to protect, restore or even replace these dopaminergic neurons. Our Irish Research Council-funded research in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, University College Cork, aims to understand how unique brain signals, known as ‘neurotrophic factors’, promote survival and growth of dopaminergic neurons during life. In the future, we envision such an understanding will facilitate the use of such neurotrophic factor signals as a new Parkinson’s therapy. If these signals can maintain or restore dopaminergic neurons in PD, then PwPs could once again control their movements.

While such disease-modifying therapies are being developed, it is crucial that PwPs take a pro-active approach following their diagnosis. Parkinson’s community groups, such as Parkinson's Association of Ireland and Move4Parkinsons, provide fantastic platforms for PwPs to become empowered to achieve their best possible quality of life. Indeed, our Irish Research Council-funded public engagement ‘BRAINTALK’ project aims to create an active, interconnected Parkinson’s community in Ireland which together strives to improve the management and research outcomes of PD. The support and maintenance of this Parkinson’s community and research in Ireland is essential for us to move in the right direction.