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One Year Later: Catching up With Parkinson’s Foundation Research Grantee Hengyi Rao, PhD

One year after the Parkinson’s Foundation awarded $500,000 in research grants to address critical unmet needs in Parkinson’s disease (PD), we check in with one of three of the researchers making a difference right now. 

Researchers were tasked with jumpstarting practical solutions to ease difficulties related to cognition, fatigue and sleep, all debilitating yet under-recognized symptoms in Parkinson’s. They have each received a grant funded through the Parkinson’s Foundation Community Choice Research Awards, the first program to set research priorities based on the insights of people living with Parkinson’s.

Using Brain Imaging to track Fatigue in Parkinson's Disease

University of Pennsylvania, Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence

University of Pennsylvania, Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence

Q: Can you explain your study in less than 100 words?

A: Fatigue is a common symptom of Parkinson’s and a major contributor to disability and distress. However, little is known about the neural mechanisms underlying fatigue in PD, which is a barrier to preventing and managing it. In our study, we use cutting-edge brain imaging methods to explain brain function changes underlying fatigue in PD and explore the effectiveness of using blue light to potentially reduce fatigue and reverse fatigue-related brain dysfunction. We hope our findings can be used to better understand and manage fatigue in PD.

Q: How many participants are enrolled in the study?

A: We have enrolled 15 people with Parkinson’s and plan to enroll a total of 24.

Q: What has been the most surprising thing you have learned so far in your research?

A: Study participants are very interested in taking part in this fatigue study and are incredibly cooperative. To collect enough data for our research, we need to have our patients stay in the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) A medical imaging technique that uses magnetic forces to obtain detailed images of the body. MRI is non-invasive and does not use radiation. scanner for about 90 to 100 minutes without head movement. This is not easy even for healthy individuals. However, most of the participants with PD did a great job and were able to complete the whole study. They are dedicated in moving our fatigue research forward.

Q: What have been your biggest challenges?

A: We need an MRI scanner for this study. It is difficult to set up the cutting-edge multimodal brain imaging protocol and schedule the use of the MRI scanner in a timely manner because many other researchers need to use it for their studies as well. However, with support from Center for Functional Neuroimaging faculties and University of Pennsylvania staff, we have overcome these challenges. 

Q: What has the Parkinson’s Foundation grant helped you accomplish in your study?

A: We have been interested in the brain mechanisms that control fatigue in PD for a long time. However, use of the MRI scanner is costly, and funding support from the Parkinson’s Foundation grant makes this study possible.

Q: Are there any preliminary findings you would like to share?

A: I would be happy to share some with you. Our pilot data suggests that increased fatigue in PD may be associated with altered organization features of the interconnected brain network  when people with PD are at rest and not completing any tasks. We are still enrolling more subjects and collecting more data to further examine this association.

To learn more about Parkinson’s research visit

Research Round Up
Fri, 04/20/2018
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