Psychology research aims to benefit Parkinson’s disease victims

The TCU psychology department is researching the prevention of diseases such as Parkinson’s, said an expert of human behavior.Tim Barth, chairman of the psychology department, said that by creating the same symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in rats, the department can experiment with different treatments that could prevent the disease.

“Many people that have Parkinson’s have had a viral infection that creates brain inflammation,” Barth explained. “Although the infection goes away, an ongoing process still occurs with the brain inflammation that may develop into Parkinson’s disease.”

Barth said he and other researchers will create brain inflammation in rats and watch to see if the animal develops Parkinson’s disease.

Neal Jackson, a junior neuroscience major, will be one of the few undergraduate students involved in the research.

“We will observe by studying the rat’s behavior and looking at their brains through brain slices with microscopes,” Jackson said.

George King, an associate professor of psychology, is a neurochemist working with Barth on the research.

“We are trying to find early detection of the disease,” he said. “Most people catch Parkinson’s when the symptoms start, but they have already lost 85 to 90 percent of dopamine neurons in the brain.”

Barth said this kind of research is new for TCU.

“About six other institutions are looking into this, but they are mostly attached to medical schools,” he said. “We’re unique because we are a small private school, and undergraduates get to partake in the research.”

The research is mostly funded by TCU, but the department recently submitted a grant to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, Barth said.

Barth was approved for publication in December for research he performed last spring.

“There is a surgical treatment for Parkinson’s that involves damaging parts of the brain to relieve symptoms, called a pallidotomy,” he said. “However, doctors don’t know if there are negative effects to this surgery.”

Last spring, Barth researched the effects of the procedure in rats and discovered many motor problems that can be seen in humans as well, he said.

“Certain behaviors occur in excess, such as movement where patients become hyperactive,” he said. “However, arm movements such as reaching are decreased considerably.”

He said he hopes doctors understand the effects so families and victims can make fair decisions about the surgery.

The faculty started conceiving the idea of this type of research at TCU last fall and will start experiments on rats by the beginning of March, Barth said.

“We should know some real results from the research by the end of the summer,” he said.

King said the department must still submit animal protocols to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, a federal committee that reviews animal research, before it can start.

Jackson said he is most excited about the practical knowledge he could gain from research like this.

“This is a disease that changes people’s lives, and what I discover could affect thousands of lives and improve them,” he said.