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Visiting researcher at Stempel College explores Parkinson’s disease and how exercise can help

In the United States, about one million people are living with Parkinson’s disease, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. The disease is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors and is usually diagnosed with the presence of cardinal motor signs and symptoms. Tremors, slowness of movement, stiffness of the arms, legs or trunk, and postural imbalance are the main motor symptoms that need to be present in order to make a diagnosis. There is no cure for the disease and the reason for its development remains unknown.

Across the country, researchers are working around the clock to identify ways to help those living with the disease. Joining this effort is Dr. Ella Anle Kasanga, a visiting researcher who recently graduated from the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. Dr. Kasanga is a recipient of the Parkinson’s Foundation Visiting Scholar Award which offers graduate students and postdoctoral fellows the chance to expand their skill set to support their Parkinson’s disease research. As part of the scholarship, Dr. Kasanga is visiting the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work where she works under the mentorship of Dr. Jason Richardson, Associate Dean for Research.

Learn more about her work in the Q&A below.

Dr. Ella Anle Kasanga, visiting researcher 

Dr. Kasanga, Parkinson’s disease impacts so many people across the country. What do we know about it?

Parkinson’s disease is a motor disorder that usually affects the elderly population. When we are looking at its progression, we see that most of the patients have impaired mobility up to their end of life. Unfortunately, currently, there are no available drugs to slow down the progression of the disease. In as much as researchers are looking for pharmacological interventions or medications for those living with the disease, there is the need to look at interventions that do not require drugs. We know that the elderly population is usually plagued with chronic ailments and as such, most of them, are on a number of medications, thus finding alternate interventions, such as lifestyle modifications, can help reduce the incidents of negative drug interactions.

Which brings us to your research. What have you been working on?

A recent study I worked on, under the mentorship of my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Michael F. Salvatore, modeled Parkinson’s disease in rats to determine how treadmill exercise could reduce the rate of progression of motor decline. The study also aimed to investigate the exercise-induced changes that occurred in specific regions of the brain which are mainly affected by Parkinson’s disease. When you look at the existing scientific literature, a lot of researchers investigate the role of exercise as a preventative measure for Parkinson’s disease. In my study, we wanted to look at the role exercise can play if someone already has the disease. Can treadmill exercise, instituted in a regimen that can be practiced by a person living with Parkinson’s disease,  slow down or halt its progression? This is the question we aimed to answer.

What were your findings?

We were able to show that exercising rats on a treadmill can slow down motor decline and further promote motor recovery. Right now, the results from this study are being put together for publication, so we can share the rest of our exciting data with the public very soon.

How does your study compare to others that are out there on exercise intervention?

Currently, there are a lot of studies being published in which researchers are trying to look at what types of modalities of exercise should people be practicing for the management of Parkinson’s disease. Should patients engage in aerobic exercise,  strength or resistance training? Together, we are trying to gather findings, with the end result being a protocol that medical professionals can follow to help those diagnosed with the disease. Along with giving patients their medication, they could be prescribed an exercise regimen to slow down the disease’s progression. I wouldn’t say now that exercise could be used as sole therapy, but there are lots of studies that show exercise can be useful as an adjunct therapy.

Also, a major goal of my study is to elucidate the mechanisms that are mediating these beneficial effects of exercise. We are cognizant of the fact that even though, exercise is beneficial not all people living with Parkinson’s disease can successfully engage in increased physical activity. It is our hope that by identifying these critical targets, we may be able to develop alternative strategies or approaches to reproduce the beneficial effects of exercise.

What kind of work are you doing as a visiting researcher at Stempel College?

At Stempel College, I am training in Dr. Jason Richardson’s lab, where I am working closely with the lab manager, Ms. Yoonhee Han and all the lab members.  Everyone has been very helpful in showing me the ropes.

In the lab, I am learning new techniques which will help me to interrogate the neurobiological mechanisms which are responsible for exercise-induced motor recovery. These techniques are not only helpful to answering pertinent questions in my present exercise study but also will add to my repertoire of biomedical techniques which will serve me well in my scientific career.

What’s next for you?

I am currently serving as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Michael Salvatore at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. My mentor, realizing the importance of this unique award, offered me the opportunity to train in Dr. Richardson’s lab. After my time at Stempel College, I will resume my work back in Fort Worth where we are working to investigate the mechanisms for motor decline in aging and Parkinson’s disease.

About Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work
The mission of Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work is to inspire groundbreaking research and education through a nurturing academic environment that influences policy and promotes healthy lives in communities near and far. Stempel College’s public health school ranks 44th in the country among public universities by U.S. World News & Report. The college’s academic disciplines—public health, dietetics and nutrition, social work, and disaster preparedness—are advancing research and practices to realize this mission, bringing our students and faculty to the forefront of their fields.