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An update from Dr Nadeeka Dissanayaka PhD

Parkinson’s Disease

Dr Nadeeka Dissanayaka PhD

Current Lions Medical Research Fellow

Thank you once again for awarding the prestigious Lions Medical Research Fellowship. It has been a rewarding experience since the commencement of the fellowship in February 2013. This fellowship has allowed establishment of a clinical research program primarily focused on Parkinson’s disease within the new Neuro Mental Health Unit at the University of Queensland Centre for Clinical research. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive and incurable brain disease. Unfortunately, it is one of the relatively common neurological disorders observed in later in life. At face value, Parkinson’s disease is characterised by changes in a person’s ability to move. Noticeable changes are tremor, stiffness, slowness in movement, difficulties in walking and problem with their balance. However, deeper non-movement related issues like anxiety, depression and dementia frequently dominate the clinical picture and are difficult to treat. Given that in Australia, one among every 340 people live their daily lives with Parkinson’s disease, often changes like depression and anxiety that we do not see can adversely impact Parkinson’s disease patients’ quality of life, often to a greater extent than the movement disability. Australians spend over $9.9 billion per annum to deal with Parkinson’s disease.

Our highly productive clinical research group at the University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research in collaboration with the Royal Brisbane & Women’s Hospital has initiated a research program to Improve Diagnosis and Treatment of Anxiety in Parkinson’s Disease (IDATA-PD study). IDATA-PD is an internationally leading study. In 2017, it was selected as top 1% of leading research in the world’s largest conference in Parkinson’s disease.

One in every two people with Parkinson’s disease experience anxiety, of those who do not receive medication, only 20% respond positively. To complicate matters, anxiety in Parkinson’s disease presents with unique and complex symptoms, which must be understood and addressed if psychological treatment is to be effective. Our research has contributed to better understanding of anxiety by profiling anxiety symptoms unique to PD such as anxiety relating to motor disability and complications resulting from Parkinson’s medication. Our commitment to improving daily lives of Parkinson’s sufferers has led our team to develop a new Parkinson’s-specific anxiety inventory (PD-SAI) for efficient identification of anxiety and measuring change in response to tailored psychotherapy treatment.

Our IDATA-PD study was the first to develop and pilot non-drug psychological therapies for anxiety in PD. Our trials with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Mindfulness Therapy for anxiety in Parkinson’s disease have shown positive outcomes of reducing anxiety, as well as depression, and considerably lowering caregiver burden. In addition to developing evidence-based targeted treatments to combat anxiety in PD, our IDATA-PD study endeavor to increase accessibility of psychological care for urban, rural and impaired Parkinson’s patients with impaired mobility. We hope to trial these new psychological treatment using new telehealth video conferencing technologies, assisting in getting much-needed treatment to a wider community. Telehealth minimises the travel burden for Parkinson’s patients where transport and mobility are an issue, as well as cost savings. We have now extended our research program to study dementia in Parkinson’s disease. Dementia is a complication developed by 80% of patients with Parkinson’s disease at advanced disease stage. Our study examines patients who are possibility at risk of developing dementia as Parkinson’s disease progresses to find cutting edge methods for early detection, and subsequently to discover new therapies to prevent or delay development of dementia.

The prestigious Lions Medical Research Fellowship has allowed me to increase our research output by increasing high impact publications in internationally leading journals (30 publications), attracting new grant funding (14 grants) and capacity building for the next generation of neuroscientists and psychological service providers (57 students). Our escalating national and international reputation is evident by regular invitations to present our work (40 conferences, 24 invited seminars and 16 public talks), increasing media reports (10 reports) and regular peer review requests for internationally leading journals in neurology and psychiatry (17 journals to date); all of which have placed our Brisbane research team in the international forefront in combating an incurable and burgeoning brain disease.

Patron: His Excellency The Honourable Paul de Jersey AC, Governor of Queensland

The QLD & Northern NSW Lions Medical Research Foundation is a Deductible Gift Recipient so your donation will be tax deductible.

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