VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center funds four innovative, interdisciplinary research projects
Through its pilot grants program, the PMDC will invest nearly $200,000 in projects aimed at improving the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease and other movement and neurodegenerative disorders.
September 7, 2022
The VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center has awarded nearly $200,000 in pilot grants to four VCU investigators who are looking to improve treatment options for people with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.
The PMDC Pilot Grants program, now in its second year, seeks to bolster translational research initiatives that will transform the clinical care of patients with movement disorders by providing initial support for research projects that are collaborative, impactful and likely to attract future funding.
“By combining expertise across different disciplines, this year’s awardees will be able to answer more complex scientific questions and ultimately provide greater benefit to patients affected by Parkinson’s and other movement and neurodegenerative disorders,” said Brian Berman, M.D., director of the VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center and chair of the Division of Movement Disorders. “More research of this kind will ultimately lead to scientific advances that positively impact the quality of life for individuals living with these disorders.”
The PMDC Pilot Grants program also aims to expand the capacity for future advances by fostering interest in movement disorders research in young and early-stage investigators.
“A primary goal in developing this program was to help launch the careers of promising young researchers and encourage them to look across disciplines for innovative solutions from the very start,” Berman said. “In the two years we’ve been awarding these pilot grants, three out of seven have been mentored awards to VCU students and trainees. We are eager to see what these early-stage investigators are able to accomplish as they progress in their careers.”
This year’s funded projects include faculty from multiple departments and schools across VCU, including neurology, neurosurgery, surgery, biomedical engineering and nursing, as well as an M.D.-Ph.D. student and a professor from the Computer Science Department at William & Mary.
“The VCU PMDC continues to be steadfast in supporting our mission of providing world-class patient care, carrying out cutting-edge research and educating the next generation of movement disorders clinicians,” said David Chelmow, M.D., interim dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “Through its pilot grants program, the PMDC not only helps advance promising new research in movement disorders but also provides a unique opportunity for junior investigators to pursue their own projects.”
The PMDC Pilot Grants program is supported by funds provided to the center through the Commonwealth of Virginia and philanthropy, including the Johnson Family Fund for Essential Tremor Research.
PMDC Pilot Grant Awardees 2022–2023
Leslie J. Cloud, M.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Neurology, VCU School of Medicine
Blood flow restriction training for Parkinson’s disease
Despite the known health benefits of high intensity exercise, this type of exercise is difficult for people with Parkinson’s disease. Blood flow restriction training may provide a solution. This approach combines low intensity exercise with the use of pressurized cuffs to slow blood flow to specific muscles to try to produce results similar to high intensity training. This type of exercise has been shown to be effective at increasing muscle strength, muscle mass and walking speed in healthy and arthritic older adults; however, it has yet to be rigorously examined for those with Parkinson’s disease. Cloud and her colleagues intend to conduct such a rigorous pilot study and will use this project to develop a protocol, train staff and generate preliminary data.
Kirsty Dixon, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery, VCU School of Medicine
Understanding the relationship between traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative disease
Traumatic brain injury is a risk factor for the development of neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Through this study, Dixon will take a closer look at how traumatic brain injury and neuroinflammation affect signaling pathways in the brain to exacerbate neurodegeneration. The pilot data collected will support a larger grant application with the ultimate goal of identifying ways to mitigate traumatic brain injury as a risk factor for the later development of neurodegenerative diseases.
Ingrid Pretzer-Aboff, Ph.D., R.N.
Associate Professor, Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems, VCU School of Nursing
PERCEPTion of FoG
Freezing of gait (FoG) is a devastating symptom affecting 60% of patients with Parkinson’s disease, yet there is currently no effective treatment. Through their project, Pretzer-Aboff and colleagues will analyze electrical signals occurring in collections of brain cells – called local field potentials – that are recorded by deep brain stimulation electrodes of people with Parkinson’s disease experiencing FoG. This will help them determine if there is a detectable change in the brain’s electrical activity that corresponds to the onset and resolution of a freeze. The team aims to identify a biomarker that can be used to advance the development of novel treatments for FoG.
Co-investigators: Leslie Cloud, M.D., Department of Neurology, VCU School of Medicine; Kathryn Holloway, M.D., Department of Neurosurgery, VCU School of Medicine; Gang Zhou, Ph.D., Department of Computer Science, William & Mary; Dean J. Krusienski, Ph.D., Department of Biomedical Engineering, VCU College of Engineering
M.D.-Ph.D. student, Department of Biomedical Engineering, VCU College of Engineering
The next step in essential tremor treatment: Local field potential optimization of deep brain stimulation
Deep brain stimulation has greatly benefited people with essential tremor, which causes involuntary and rhythmic shaking most often in the hands, who are refractory or unable to tolerate pharmacologic treatments. However, some people undergoing deep brain stimulation for essential tremor do not benefit as much as expected or have difficulty with adverse effects. In an effort to refine this technology, Wallner and colleagues intend to examine the relationship between local field potentials and tremor severity. This will allow them to identify signatures that can inform clinicians of what stimulator parameters could improve the efficacy of tremor treatment while also helping reduce any adverse effects of the treatment.
Co-investigators: Kathryn Holloway, M.D., Department of Neurosurgery, VCU School of Medicine
Mentor: Dean Krusienski, Ph.D., Department of Biomedical Engineering, VCU College of Engineering