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August 29, 2013

Do genetics increase risk for memory problems in Parkinson’s disease patients?

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A research team at University of Virginia School of Medicine led by Matthew Barrett, MD, MSc, will use a state grant to examine the link between genetics and memory problems in Parkinson’s disease patients. Barrett hopes the research will eventually lead to customized treatments for Parkinson’s disease patients.

According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 500,000 Americans have Parkinson’s disease, which can cause a variety of health problems that include tremors, stiffness, difficulty moving and memory problems.

The development of memory issues varies widely among Parkinson’s patients, said Barrett, a neurologist who joined the UVA faculty in 2012 following a fellowship specializing in movement disorders at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. Some patients may have Parkinson’s for many years before memory problems develop, he said, “while other patients with Parkinson’s have cognitive impairment and dementia early on.”

Researchers suspect the differences in when Parkinson’s disease patients develop dementia are linked to genetics. Earlier research has linked certain genes to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; the work of Barrett’s research team will examine whether those same genes increase the risk for memory problems in Parkinson’s patients.

Barrett hopes this research will be a key step toward directing treatments for memory problems in Parkinson’s disease patients that are based on their specific genetic makeup. “Patients are very different, and they experience Parkinson’s symptoms differently,” Barrett said. “Our research is focused on how to tailor and optimize treatment for patients with Parkinson’s. This project is a necessary step to achieve this goal.”

The research is supported by a $40,000 grant from the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Alzheimer’s and Related Diseases Research Award Fund. Barrett will be joined in the research by UVA neurologist Bradford Worrall, MD, MSc; Robert Abbott, MA, MPH, PhD , a UVA professor of public health sciences and neurology; and Stephen Turner, PhD , director of the UVA Bioinformatics Core.

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