Durham County

Duke neuroscientist wins $4 million grant to study Parkinson’s disease

Duke University neuroscientist and biomedical engineer Warren Grill has been awarded a $4 million grant to study deep brain stimulation in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

The Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award guarantees funding for Grill’s work for the next four years, and another three pending administrative review.

Grill’s research focuses on deep brain stimulation, a treatment that has been used since the 1990s to alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions.

In this treatment, surgeons implant electrodes in the patient’s brain that emit regular electric pulses. For reasons that aren’t fully understood, these pulses quiet the abnormal patterns of neural activity that cause the unwanted movements experienced by Parkinson’s patients – possibly by interrupting these patterns, Grill said.

The electrodes are powered by a battery pack about the size of an Altoid tin that is implanted in the patient’s chest. A wire that is run under the skin connects the battery pack to the electrodes in the brain. The battery typically runs out every three or four years, when patients must have surgery to replace it.

More than 100,000 patients have received deep brain stimulation surgery since 1995, according to Medtronic, the company that manufactures the device.

Grill and his students have found that altering the rhythm and frequency of the pulses – like a Morse code sequence rather than constant bleeping – may treat symptoms more effectively. Also, Grill said, fewer pulses would increase the device’s battery life and allow for smaller batteries, which could be implanted in the head instead of the chest and require fewer replacement surgeries.

“For me, [the Javits Award is] a very big deal,” Grill said. With up to seven years of funding secured, Grill and his students have the freedom to pursue more “speculative” work.

To remain competitive for grants, scientists pursue ideas they think will show results quickly, even if those results aren’t especially groundbreaking, he said. Long-term funding frees scientists from the grant cycle and allows them to take bigger risks, such as pursuing an idea that might not bear fruit for several years.

Bigger risks lead to bigger payouts, Grill said.

Currently, Grill, his students and his collaborators – including neurosurgeons at Duke University Medical Center and Emory University in Atlanta – test different pulse patterns in Parkinson’s patients when they come in to change their battery packs. This means they have only been able to study the outcome of these patterns in an operating room for short periods of time.

With this award, Grill hopes to follow patients’ reactions to different patterns over a longer period of time. Patients might benefit from different patterns depending on what they’re doing – like writing versus walking, Grill said.

The Javits Award is named after New York senator Jacob Javits, who had the neurodegenerative disease ALS. It is awarded to senior researchers in brain research and applied neuroscience.

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