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Center Research Activities

The Udall Center at Emory University examines changes in brain activity that occur as part of Parkinson’s disease (PD), as well as the effects of antiparkinsonian treatments. Our studies are conducted from a brain circuit perspective, and aim to develop an understanding of the brain activity changes that are responsible for the movement problems in PD.  This knowledge is an essential prerequisite for targeted efforts to develop more effective and better tolerated new treatments for patients with PD.

Most of the movement problems in PD arise as a consequence of the loss of the chemical dopamine in a group of brain structures which are collectively known as the basal ganglia. Dopamine loss in the basal ganglia profoundly alters the activity of these structures, as well as that of brain structures that are connected to them. While the activity changes in the basal ganglia themselves are relatively well described, alterations in other (related) brain regions are much less understood. The research in the Udall Center at Emory University is therefore concerned with experiments that aim to understand the changes in a brain region that is heavily influenced by the basal ganglia, i.e., the outer mantle of the brain (‘cerebral cortex’). The cerebral cortex directly regulates movements and other aspects of behavior.  If we want to understand how the movement abnormalities in PD develop, we simply have to understand what goes wrong in the cerebral cortex in the parkinsonian state.

The proposed projects 1 and 2 (led by Drs. Jaeger and Galvan, respectively) are complementary studies that explore how the altered basal ganglia activity in the parkinsonian state influences cortical activity patterns. Most of the project 1 studies will be carried out in mice in which the experimental conditions can be tightly controlled. These experiments involve cutting-edge techniques that will allow us to study the activity patterns of numerous cortical cells across a large region of the brain.  The closely related project 2 will examine a similar set of questions in Rhesus monkeys, an animal species that is (relatively) close to humans. These experiments will allow the investigators to study parkinsonism-related disturbances of the activity of cortical neurons with highly specific connections within the brain.  Both projects will also study the effects of commonly used treatments for PD, such as medications or deep brain stimulation. Project 3 (led by Dr. Smith) will study parkinsonism-related anatomical changes in the cortex using sophisticated electron microscopy methods in both rodents and monkeys. The knowledge gained from the anatomical studies is essential for our understanding of the disease mechanisms at work in PD and is needed for the interpretation of the results in the other projects. Project 4 will explore parkinsonism-associated changes in cortical activity related to stopping planned or ongoing movements, one of the key behavioral changes in the parkinsonian state.  These studies will utilize data collected during deep brain stimulation surgery or brain recordings that can be made during clinic visits. As in projects 2 and 3, we will also examine how commonly used antiparkinsonian strategies alter the responses. All of the research at the Center will benefit from the Center’s Cores, including an administrative core (led by Dr. Wichmann), a service core (led by Dr. Galvan), and a clinical core (led by Dr. Factor). The administrative core provides oversight over the research, education and outreach activities, and communicates with outside partners, such as NIH, national PD organizations such as the APDA, Parkinson’s Foundation, or the Michael J. Fox Foundation, as well as researchers from other institutions. The service core will provide light microscopy services and animal treatment and observation services to the animal research projects, and biostatistical support to all of the projects. The clinical core will help with the recruitment and clinical evaluations of individuals enrolled in the studies under project 4.

In addition to its research activities, the Center has an extensive education and outreach agenda. The Center will educate trainees at all levels in PD research. Our outreach efforts will serve to teach the public about the Center’s research activities, and about PD research in the Udall center network and other entities. Besides participating in many smaller events, the Center’s primary outreach event will be an annual ‘Community Conversations’ symposium. Many of the Center’s outreach activities will be carried out in collaboration with local or national PD support organizations.