Just when I think I've got a handle on where things stand in neuroscience, the next step in the process takes a turn that surprises me. In December and early January, years of research unfolded in a few weeks time as papers published the work of Penn researchers and were able to deepen our understanding of a variety of conditions, both rare and common, hopefully getting closer to refining or finding effective treatments as a result.
For Parkinson's patients, the latest research shows that the disease is not to blame for the impulse control symptoms one-fifth of Parkinson's patients experience. Rather, researchers believe that treatments targeting the dopamine system may be a cause. Knowing the risk of the treatment, physicians will be able to monitor and track patients over time, to see if the risk of impulsivity increases over the duration of treatment.
Also on the neurodegenerative front, neurologists have come up with a non-invasive way to parse out the difference between the two most common form of dementia - Alzheimer's disease and Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration (FTLD). They are using an MRI technique to predict the ratio of two important markers for the diseases - the proteins total tau and beta-amyloid - found in the cerebrospinal fluid. This builds off other work at Penn, where the initial test to measure the levels of these proteins was developed and tested. It's among the growing list of tests developed and investigated here at Penn, including ASL-MRI, PET, and a recently FDA approved amyloid-beta tracer for PET scans.
The better the tests, the more hope and opportunity to place people in clinical trials that are most likely to reach the given target and hopefully curb disease. Earlier in December, another study from the Penn Memory Center found that, contrary to the trend of non-spousal Alzheimer's caregivers, most caregivers that participate in clinical trials are spouses of the person with Alzheimer's. Researchers hope that they can reduce barriers to make it easier for other caregivers to co-participate in these trials with their loved ones living with Alzheimer's.
These incremental gains in combination show a ramped up pace for neurodegenerative diseases, and in Neurology in general. Now, the focus is on translating the advances into clinical care, as soon as the research is shown to be effective and accurate, providing more hopeful momentum for these devastating conditions.