Neurologist Wins Fellowship to Support Parkinson’s Research

April 24, 2008

A physician at the University of Rochester Medical Center has been recognized for her work aiming to ease the side effects of medications widely used to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Michelle Burack, M.D., Ph.D., instructor of Neurology and Pediatrics, received a clinical research training fellowship from the American Academy of Neurology. The fellowship covers her salary and related costs for two years.

Burack is studying ways to try to alleviate some of the troublesome consequences of treatment that many patients with Parkinson’s disease face. The disease is marked by shaky, stiff and slow movements, a result of the death of key nerve cells in the brain known as dopamine neurons. Early treatment with a medication designed to boost the amount of the signaling molecule dopamine in the brain is usually very effective.

As the disease wears on and more brain cells die off, however, the medication can start to produce troublesome side effects. One such side effect resembles extreme restlessness or fidgeting – a person’s arms or legs move unexpectedly and uncontrollably, or the patient’s neck or head twists suddenly, for instance. In patients who have been treated for the disease for 10 years or more, 90 percent suffer from such movements.

“It’s a balancing act when it comes to treatment,” said Burack. “Oftentimes patients must decide whether they’d rather be a little stiff and move slowly, or whether they’d rather move faster but also face the risk of moving involuntarily and fidgeting unpredictably. We’d like to find new ways to alleviate patients’ symptoms without asking them to make such a choice.”

Burack received her medical and doctoral degrees from Washington University in St. Louis and completed a fellowship in movement disorders there before joining the University last year.

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