The McCamish Parkinson’s Disease Innovation Program at Georgia Tech marked an important milestone, hosting its inaugural McCamish Parkinson’s Disease Innovation Conference on Dec. 5. The event brought together a range of local, national, and international speakers, setting the stage for an exploration of cutting-edge Parkinson’s Disease (PD) research.
Organized by the joint Georgia Tech-Emory neuroscience and neuroengineering committee, the conference invited speakers from University of California, San Francisco, Oxford University, England, EPFL, Switzerland as well as experts from Georgia Tech and Emory University.
The conference elevates the work of the McCamish program, established in 2021 through a generous donation to the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering from the McCamish Foundation. The vision behind the program is clear— to be the technology-driven hub of far-reaching innovation for the understanding and treatment of Parkinson’s disease and other complex neurological disorders through the intersection of fundamental neuroscience, engineering, computing, and clinical neuroscience.
In keeping with this vision, the McCamish Parkinson’s Disease Innovation Conference was formed.
“The program has really started to blossom, and we wanted to highlight the local community, and also pick the brains of experts from the around the world as to where the gaps in knowledge are, and identify opportunities for the growth of our program,” said Garrett Stanley, director of the McCamish Parkinson’s Disease Innovation Program and one of the organizers of the conference.
Covering the past, present and future of Parkinson’s Disease, the conference also delved into proteinopathy and opportunities for biomarkers in PD. Acting as moderator for the panel on this critical topic was Dr. Stella Papa, professor at the department of Neurology at Emory University, Georgia.
The conversations underscored the uncertainties surrounding proteinopathy and mechanisms underlying PD. Dr. Papa stressed the importance and research needed in addressing this knowledge gap, stating, “we need to know more about the basic alterations in alpha-synuclein function and processing in the brain that leads to abnormal function, neurodegeneration and cell death.” Despite progress in the last decade, panelists emphasized that further research on biomarkers is essential, especially in determining treatment success in clinical trials — a critical component needed to understand the factors driving PD and to halt disease progression.
Among the distinguished speakers was Dr. Raquel Liberman, a professor of Chemistry and Biochemmistry at Georgia Tech. Dr. Liberman shared insights into her project focusing on the increased risk for Parkinson’s disease due to gene mutations in glucocerebrosidase. Her motivation lies in understanding the molecular underpinnings of PD to better tackle the problem.
Throughout the event, several more speakers shared their research findings and insights. Discussions ranged from different therapeutic approaches to the integration of technology for improved diagnosis and management of PD.
“I really enjoyed the panel that mixed neurosurgeons, neurologists, engineers and people with the disease living the experience, and hearing all the different perspectives from the practical challenges of living with the device to managing medications to thinking about how neurosurgeons are considering the future of the therapy,” said Dr. Tim Denison, professor in engineering science at Oxford University, England.
Denison presented research highlighting the importance of factoring in daytime activity and wakefulness in PD patient care, emphasizing the potential to improve therapy by adapting device operation during different times of the day.
“A lot of the times with follow ups, people see patients during daytime and during normal office hours and so we might be missing some of the impacts of their sleep,” said Denison. “We need to be thinking carefully about that’s going on with sleep, transitions between wakefulness and sleep and how we might want to have the devices operate in a somewhat different manner during the day versus what’s going on at night. That’s a real opportunity to improve the therapy in the short term.”
Brian Lau, a scientific advisor for the McCamish program at the Paris Brain Institute, found Denison's research to be very insightful.
"Really inspirational talk about the application of stimulation for sleep, which is something I hadn't thought about seriously before,” Lau said. “At least in movement disorders, we think a lot about deep brain stimulation (DBS) for treating movement, and sleep isn’t particularly part of that movement."
The conference also featured a compelling presentation by Alex Moore, a Parkinson’s disease patient who shared his firsthand experience. Moore, equipped with a deep brain stimulator implant, was accompanied by Dr. Stewart Factor, a neurologist at Emory University in the movement disorders program, who also runs a Parkinson’s clinic.
Dr. Factor explained the significance of having a patient like Moore in these programs.
“It lets people actually see how the treatments we give to Parkinson’s patients impacts their life, how the disease impacts their life, how the treatment impacts their life and how we can benefit them in the long term with what we do,” said Factor.
Moore was initially hesitant about undergoing deep brain stimulation (DBS). He vividly described his daily routine of managing Parkinson’s with a handful of pills and the difficult choice he faced between medication and DBS. “You’re taking a wad of pills, but you’re pretty much in control versus a brain operation and it might be able to control your tremor,” explained Moore.
Post DBS-surgery and after having the neurostimulator activated, Moore recalls not only did DBS result in a significant improvement in the tremors on his right side, but he was also able to be medication-free. “It’s allowed me to live a reasonably normal life. It’s enabled me to control my tremor and function,” said Moore.
One of the conference’s most impactful moments was the demonstration involving Moore, where his DBS implant was temporarily turned off, revealing the immediate return of tremors. Conference participants were given a direct insight into the profound challenges posed by Parkinson’s disease as they observed the immediate effects on Moore’s movement without the DBS implant.
“You can immediately see the tremors start and how debilitating that was. You’re able to connect all of the far-removed academic research to the actual application and clinical translation to see that this is actually making an impact on people’s lives. It was just very impactful to remind ourselves that maybe we’re making a positive impact in some way,” said Cara Motz, a fifth year Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech.
While DBS helps with tremors associated with Parkinson’s, there are other unaddressed challenges that come with it. Beyond the noticeable impact on motor functions, Parkinson’s introduces hidden struggles such as sleep disturbances, as well as issues with bowel movements and poor bladder control. Recognizing the broader spectrum of difficulties, it becomes crucial to develop technology that comprehensively improves the quality of life of all Parkinson’s patients.
This is relevant especially with post-surgery visual differences that Parkinson’s brings to patients’ appearances. During the surgery, electrode leads are intricately routed across the skull's surface, taking a distinctive 90-degree bend before descending into the brain. At this bend, a small cap is placed atop the lead. However, a prevailing challenge with current approaches is that this cap protrudes prominently above the skull.
This is particularly problematic for patients with sparse hair as the lead caps placed near the forehead can result in visible bumps that some humorously describe as ‘horns on the head’. Addressing this concern goes to the heart of maintaining patients’ dignity.
“The technology of doing DBS to improve symptoms is just one part of it and that other aspects of it which may impact patient dignity like having lumps on your forehead from the surgery is something that should have equal consideration,” said Factor. Delivering patients to a state where they can focus on therapy without constant visual reminders of their medical condition is a crucial consideration for making the entire process and surgery less invasive.
The conference also featured the work of four Georgia Tech and Emory Blue Sky Grant awardees, each focusing on an aspect of the disease. Among them, Asst. prof. Cassie Mitchell presented on Literature-based Discovery (LBD), revealing the applications of the SemNet 2.0 algorithm. By analyzing over 33 million PubMed articles, Mitchell’s team identified repurposed drugs, like antihistamines, with promising effects on Parkinson's symptoms when combined with standard therapies.
Prof. Lena Ting, another grant recipient, explored brain activity during movement in Parkinson's. She emphasized the conference's role in connecting with experts and generating insights into poorly understood motor and non-motor impairments. The event also facilitated collaborations, inspiring Ting's team to incorporate DBS insights into their electroencephalography (EEG) data and explore new study ideas.
“The conference was great for my research team, many of whom are new to PD. We met all kinds of people who have already influenced our research ideas, from a patient with DBS (Patrick Exley) to a leading expert in its application (Tim Denison),” Ting said. “We’ve invited someone to present in our lab and are reaching out to collaborate with others.”
Much as this conference served as a platform for sharing knowledge and exchanging insights with other researchers, it also provided ground to consider how past concepts can be bridged with new technology. Echoing the conference theme of past, present and future, the conference emphasized the reliance on the wisdom of those who came before in understanding and treating Parkinson’s Disease.
“We pick up where a prior generation had left off and we forgot about it,” said Denison. “But now with new technologies we can start to implement some of the ideas that were just ideas at that stage, but now we have the technology to support it.”