Matthew Sacheli, PhD student,
University of British Columbia
Graduate Student Award: 2 yrs. $30,000
Funded by The Garden Centre Group Co-op Corp.

Investigating the therapeutic mechanisms of exercise interventions for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease

Neuroscientist Matthew Sacheli was working as a personal trainer to help put himself through university when he noticed that one of his patients, who had Parkinson’s disease, had fewer symptoms when engaging in calisthenics and resistance training.

By the end of the workout, however, Sacheli could see his client’s tremors and stiffness return.
“It was really an eye-opener to me to see that exercise could be beneficial for these patients,” Sacheli remembers.

That experience inspired Sacheli, now a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, to marry his love of sports and exercise with research into exactly why exercise helps people with Parkinson’s disease. Although doctors and researchers have learned that dance, Tai Chi, or other forms of exercise reduce both motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s, they don’t know how frequently or how intensely people need to exercise to get the benefits, or precisely what part of the brain exercise stimulates to effect these changes.

Sacheli is using two types of imaging to investigate whether exercise triggers a release of dopamine within the brain, and if it does, what specific regions of the brain are involved. If he can identify the mechanisms involved, that knowledge could open up new treatment avenues.

Sacheli is using Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to scan the brains of people with Parkinson’s before and after they have participated in three months of a regular exercise routine, to see if dopamine levels increase. He will also use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to chart the activity in his participants’ brains as they play a card game that mimics the brain’s response to rewards, like the pleasurable feeling a workout delivers.

By correlating the data from the two, Sacheli hopes to pinpoint the brain structures that exercise affects. Eventually, he hopes doctors will be able to write accurate prescriptions for the kind and type of exercise people require to improve their symptoms. Sacheli’s goal is to inspire a more holistic approach to treating Parkinson’s disease.

“The future of clinical care is a multiple and comprehensive health approach, especially for a complex disease like Parkinson’s disease,” he says.