Over 100,000 Canadians have Parkinson’s disease, a progressive, degenerative neurological condition often characterized by tremors, difficulty with movement and rigidity of muscles. This number is growing rapidly, as society ages.
We spoke with Martin McKeown, Director of the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre and a Professor in the Department of Medicine, about his research, what he hopes to accomplish in the years ahead, and his recent collaboration with Conquer Mobile to create an app for people with Parkinson’s.
Tell us about your background and what sparked your interest in Parkinson’s research.
With a background in engineering, medicine and neurology, I became interested in Parkinson’s research because some early symptoms of the disease, like tremors and stiffness, involve disorders of movement, which can be measured more easily than say subtle changes in cognition.
The Parkinson’s community is also wonderful to work with. They are engaged, enthusiastic and supportive of research, which makes our work very rewarding.
You have a very interesting background in engineering physics, medicine and neurology – How has this influenced your research?
Engineering teaches you to solve problems. This is a valuable skill to have in many fields including medicine, and especially in neurology. But the intellectual cultures of the two fields are very different, which can present challenges when working together.
Many people in medicine come from a biological background, so will typically approach disease from the traditional avenues of anatomy, pathology and biochemistry. With regard to Parkinson’s, there has been great emphasis on how the biochemistry is altered, which has led to the use of hugely successful medications like L-dopa. Initially, no one thought studying the oscillatory aspect of the disease, such as how brain waves are altered, would be useful but this ended up leading to the development of another highly successful treatment – Deep Brain Stimulation.
In order to optimally treat and possibly cure Parkinson’s, we need to use many complementary approaches to gain full understanding of the disease. New imaging technologies such as PET/MRI, which can look at both the biochemistry and the interactions between brain regions simultaneously, will likely greatly enhance our understanding.
You recently collaborated with Conquer Mobile to create an app for people with Parkinson’s disease. Can you tell us more about how the app will help patients?
We are fully aware of the fact that we typically see people with Parkinson’s disease for a brief “snapshot” during their clinical visit, which may be only once per year. This may not be an accurate assessment of how they are doing when in the comfort of their own homes. We are looking at new technologies (such as the app developed with Conquer mobile) where we can assess people’s motor and cognitive performance remotely and longitudinally and relay their information securely back to the clinic.
We are then seeing if we can use specialized algorithms to create an accurate evaluation as to how well people are functioning and whether they are in need of other therapeutic interventions.