Kurt Gagel’s love of cycling began in boyhood, biking to school each day in Bremen, Germany. It continued into adulthood, on cycling tours through his native land and other parts of Europe, and during rides around his adopted hometown of Vancouver.
Even after the tremors of Parkinson’s made cycling too hazardous, he couldn’t stop pedalling, making do instead with a stationary bike. The “rides” in his Vancouver basement were hardly as exhilarating. But he soon came to appreciate them for a new reason – they seemed to reduce the shaking.
When Gagel shared this observation with his neurologist at UBC’s Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre, Jon Stoessl wasn’t surprised.
Dr. Stoessl, Head of the Division of Neurology, started investigating the effects of exercise more than two years ago. His preliminary research found that a bout of cycling releases more dopamine (the neurotransmitter depleted by Parkinson’s) into the brains of patients who exercise regularly, compared to those who don’t. Physical activity reduced the stiffness and slowness of movement, as well as the apathy commonly associated with the disease.
“Dr. Stoessl told me the project was in jeopardy due to a lack of public funding,” Gagel says. “So I decided to step forward to fund this promising work.”
With $3 million from Gagel, Dr. Stoessl and Matthew Sacheli, a PhD student in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, have launched a five-year study to determine whether exercise changes the brains of people with Parkinson’s, decreases the severity of symptoms, increases physical and mental function, improves well-being, and affects disease progression.
The study is one of three Parkinson’s projects recently launched by donations channelled through the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Institute (PPRI).
“While we continue to seek that elusive cure, we also know that people live with Parkinson’s for many years and that there is no effective treatment to halt its progress,” says Rod Scheuerman, Chairman of the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Institute. “Our donors have enabled the funding of crucial projects that offer great potential for relieving some of the symptoms and enhancing their quality of life.”
PPRI donors Ian and Rosemary Mottershead, of the Mottershead Foundation, gave $1,303,498 for two distinct projects at UBC:
- A study of non-invasive electrical brain stimulation as a potential treatment. Researchers will determine the precise rhythm of electrical stimuli that improves motor performance, apathy, tremor and balance, and will try to tailor this treatment to individual patients.
“This field is very young, which means there’s a lot of initial excitement. It also means this study is required to separate the hype from the reality,” says lead investigator Martin McKeown, Director of the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre and the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Institute Chair. “UBC is one of the few places with the collaborations that enable this ground-breaking research.”
- The creation of a patient database that combines clinical and genetic information of Parkinson’s patients, and a systematic search for correlations between both types of data. The project will be led by Silke Cresswell, an Assistant Professor of Neurology and the Marg Meikle Professor in Parkinson’s Research.
“As I get older, my perception is that Parkinson’s is everywhere,” says Ian Mottershead, a retired business executive whose circle of family and friends includes several people with the disease. “My oldest friend from high school was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This man has a PhD in physics from UBC. His career has been in the field of satellite technology. He was an athlete all of his life. Traditional treatment has not worked. The poor man gapes, he can no longer feed himself, he falls a lot, he cannot speak audibly, he sleeps sitting up and now needs 24-hour care. What a tragic waste this is.”