My PD Story

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Ellen Hess, PhD

Understanding Gender Differences in Parkinson’s

Biological sex has a strong influence on the symptoms and course of Parkinson’s disease (PD). Ellen Hess, PhD, of Emory University, a Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence, received a Parkinson’s Foundation George G. Kaufman Impact Award to study sex differences in PD.

Previous research has established that males are two times more likely than females to develop Parkinson’s. Men also develop the disease at an earlier age than females and are more likely to have bradykinesia (slowness of movement). In later stages, men have increased daytime sleepiness.

“There are very few studies examining the underlying reasons for sex differences in movement disorders but our knowledge of sex differences in the biology of the central nervous system has grown in leaps and bounds in the past few years,” Dr. Hess said.

Women tend to have more Parkinson’s-related tremors. Women also have greater anxiety and depression, and more severe involuntary movements caused by the Parkinson’s medication levodopa. This is called L-DOPA-induced dyskinesias, or LIDs. Some research suggests estrogen may play a role in delaying or preventing Parkinson’s in women, but estrogen is probably not the only explanation for the differences between males and females.

“The biological reasons for the differences between the sexes are largely unknown and unexplored but nonetheless very important because understanding these differences could ultimately lead to personalized and more effective treatments that are targeted to males or females,” said Dr. Hess.

Dr. Hess’s research will examine sex differences in gene expression in basal ganglia in a mouse model of Parkinson’s and LIDs. The findings could lead to the discovery of drugs specifically targeted to male and female patients using a personalized medicine approach.

“Although I have been working in the role of dopamine in movement disorders for my entire scientific career, much of our work has focused on dystonia, this is actually our first grant on Parkinson’s disease,” said Dr. Hess. “The Parkinson’s Foundation grant is providing my laboratory the opportunity to expand the focus of our work and, for the first time, to contribute to Parkinson’s disease research in a meaningful way.”

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