NIH Awarded the University of Michigan $11.7 Million to Fund a Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease Research

September 27, 2021

NIH Awarded the University of Michigan $11.7 Million to Fund a Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease Research

Ann Arbor, MI – University of Michigan (U-M) clinician-researchers, led by Roger Albin, MD, Anne B. Young Collegiate Professor of Neurology, Co-Director, U-M Movement Disorders Division, and Director, U-M Parkinson’s Foundation Research Center of Excellence, were awarded a five-year $11.7 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS) to re-establish a Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson’s Disease Research. NINDS previously funded the U-M Udall Center from 2015-2020.  There are five Udall Centers nationwide, established in memory of Congressman Morris K. Udall (Arizona), who passed away from Parkinson’s disease in 1998. 

Up to 70% of patients with Parkinson disease (PD) fall each year, quadrupling the rate of hip fractures, leading to extended hospitalizations, increased use of skilled nursing facilities and eventual nursing home placement and increasing the risk of death. U-M scientists developed evidence that falls and related gait problems, resistant to currently available treatments, arise from degeneration of brain cells that use the neurochemical messenger acetylcholine. Brain acetylcholine deficits likely contribute to cognitive deficits in PD and impair the integration of cognitive functions with motor performance. This grant fund four interrelated projects designed to better understand the relationship between falls, other gait problems, cognitive impairments, and deficits of different populations of brain acetylcholine cells.

The U-M Udall Center research team is a highly interactive and productive group of investigators from the different disciplines, including Neurology, Radiology, Psychology, and Biostatistics. 

Pioneering work in PD participants led by U-M investigators Nicolaas Bohnen, MD, PhD, Professor of Radiology and Neurology, and Kirk Frey, MD, PhD, David E. Kuhl Collegiate Professor of Radiology and Neurology, use novel brain imaging methods to show that loss of acetylcholine brain cells is strongly associated with falls, other gait problems, and cognitive deficits. Loss of specific groups of cholinergic cells robs patients of the ability to pay close attention to their movements and environment, reducing movement safety. Loss of other types of cholinergic cells likely impairs perception of other forms of information important for movement. 

In closely related animal model work, the specific circuits underlying these problems are being investigated by investigator Martin Sarter, PhD, Charles M. Butter Collegiate Professor of Psychology, casting light on how attentional information is integrated with movement mechanisms to produce gait coordination. 

Dr. Albin is using brain imaging methods to probe how loss of acetylcholine cells causes cognitive deficits and may identify a group of PD subjects at risk for faster progression. In parallel work, investigator Omar Ahmed, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biomedical Engineering, is studying cellular mechanisms of acetylcholine signaling in spatial navigation, an important cognitive function related to movement. 

These projects are supported by a team of biostatisticians and data analysts, led by F. DuBois Bowman, PhD, Dean, School of Public Health and Cathie Spino, ScD, Professor of Biostatistics.  Prabesh Kanel, PhD, Research Investigator in Radiology and Robert Koeppe, PhD, Professor of Radiology, direct application of new imaging methods. Parkinson’s disease outreach efforts are led by Kelvin Chou, MD,  Co-Director, Surgical Therapies Improving Movement (STIM) Program, and Co-Director, U-M Movement Disorders Division.

The goal of the Udall Centers program is to improve understanding of and care of PD.  The Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease Research at the University of Michigan brings together investigators from a variety of disciplines, including Neurology, Radiology, Psychology and Biostatistics to support innovative and critical laboratory and clinical research to achieve that goal.

If you are interested in any additional information, please contact Nancy Laracey, Udall Center Administrator at laracey@med.umich.edu or 734-936-8764.