Visiting Scholar Awards

The Parkinson's Foundation Visiting Scholar Award provides graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with the opportunity to expand their existing skill set to benefit their Parkinson's disease (PD) research. Awardees receive a $4,000 stipend to support the travel and housing of the scholar while visiting a host laboratory at a different institution and up to an additional $1,000 to attend a scientific conference to present their research.

Evaluating A Protein’s Role in Death of Dopamine Neurons
Hojin Kang, MS
Visiting Scholar Fellowship

A protein called ZNF746 is known to lead to degeneration of the nervous system in Parkinson’s disease, through the loss of dopamine neurons in the mid-brain. Dopamine is a brain chemical messenger that carries information between neurons. People with Parkinson’s have low levels or are missing dopamine in the brain. ZNF746 is just one protein in a family of proteins that regulate gene expression.

Hojin Kang, MS, received a Visiting Scholar Fellowship from the Parkinson’s Foundation to study this family of proteins and how it is involved in the death of dopamine neurons. Her goal is to understand which of these proteins are specifically found in the mid-brain, which other proteins they interact with and how they may lead to the development of Parkinson’s.

To achieve this goal, she will study the action of this protein family in dopamine neurons in human neurons as well as a mouse model of PD.

Our hope is this research will lead to a new therapeutic target for Parkinson’s disease.

Examining the Link Between a Sleep Disorder and PD
Lynne Marie Krohn, MSc
Visiting Scholar Fellowship

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder (RBD) is a sleep disorder in which a person physically acts out vivid, often unpleasant dreams with vocal sounds and sudden, often violent arm and leg movements during REM sleep. About 40% to 50% of people with this disorder develop Parkinson’s disease within an average of 10-15 years, and a similar percentage of the PD population has RBD.

Lynne Marie Krohn, MSc, received a Visiting Scholar Fellowship from the Parkinson’s Foundation to study the genetics of RBD risk and its progression to Parkinson’s. Her goal is to find out which people with the sleep disorder develop PD.

To achieve this goal, she will study genetic samples of people with RBD, PD and people without either condition. Then, she will use machine learning — the science of getting computers to use algorithms to solve problems — to identify genetic markers associated with progression from RBD to Parkinson’s, and will predict who will rapidly develop PD.

Our hope is that results from this research will contribute to earlier detection of PD in people with RBD.

Seeking More Accurate Genetic Testing for Parkinson’s
Marta Ruiz-Lopez, MD
Visiting Scholar Fellowship

In most cases of Parkinson’s disease, the cause is not known. Genetics cause about 10% to 15% of all Parkinson’s. Certain gene mutations are associated with Parkinson’s, but there is the possibility that there are more genes related to the disease that have not yet been identified.

A DNA sequencing method called whole exome sequencing (WES) determines the order of DNA building blocks in a person’s individual genetic code. It is used to test for genetic disorders. WES scans thousands of genes at the same time. It is considered an effective strategy for molecular diagnosis of people with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.

Marta Ruiz-Lopez, MD, has received a Visiting Scholar Fellowship from the Parkinson’s Foundation to study the role of WES in diagnosing PD and other movement disorders. Her goal is to find new candidate genes responsible for these disorders using WES.

To achieve this goal, she will reanalyze the results of 10 people with suspected genetically caused Parkinson’s or another movement disorder who had negative WES results. In eight cases, the original WES results indicated they did not have genetically related disease. Two cases showed a genetic mutation of uncertain significance. The findings could lead to significant improvements in achieving accurate diagnoses for these people.

Our hope is that we will be able to find new genes not yet associated with PD, and to gain greater understanding of the genes that have already found to be related to Parkinson’s.

Using PET Scans to Evaluate Synapse Activity in PD
Silvia Paola Caminiti, MSc
Visiting Scholar Fellowship

The pathological hallmark of Parkinson’s disease is the clumping or aggregation, of misfolded alpha-synuclein, a protein that is central to PD. The specific factor that causes neurodegeneration in PD is still unknown.

Recent research has suggested that alpha-synuclein is involved in the progression of PD by interfering with the mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of the cell. This is thought to lead to the loss of synapses (ability for a neuron to pass a signal to another neuron) between neurons, the place where electric nerve impulses between nerve cells are transmitted. In turn, this leads to the loss of neurons.

Silvia Paola Caminiti, MSc, received a Visiting Scholar Fellowship from the Parkinson’s Foundation to study the relationship between mitochondria, α-synuclein and synapses in PD. Her goal is to better understand problems in mitochondria and synapses, and their relevance to PD.

To accomplish this goal, she will use an imaging technique called positron emission tomography (PET) to evaluate what is happening in the mitochondria and synapses in the brains of people with PD, and how changes may relate to the severity of a person’s disease.

Our hope is these findings will lead to novel molecular markers to monitor disease progression and response to treatment.

What’s Next: Reporting Our Findings Overall, Parkinson’s Foundation research awards fund Parkinson’s studies than can span up to three years. Scientists submit yearly progress reports to the Parkinson’s Foundation, and we report findings once the studies have concluded. Stay up to date with our latest research findings at Parkinson.org/Blog.

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