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Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the nervous system causing tremor, stiffness and slowness of movement. The main problem for clinicians is that it’s very hard to diagnose Parkinson’s early enough to offer patients beneficial treatment. By the time they show up in clinic, the disease is already advancing and it is only the symptoms which can be managed, rather than the cause addressed.

My aim is to identify the people with RBD who are at the highest risk of developing Parkinson’s before their symptoms appear. If we can do this, it may allow us to start them on treatment to slow down or even prevent the onset of Parkinson’s.
- Michele Hu

The Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre, led by Consultant Neurologist Professor Michele Hu alongside Professor Richard Wade-Martins, is making great strides forward on many fronts in the struggle to understand this condition. Most recently, they have been awarded a five-year grant from the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre to look into the relationship between Parkinson’s and a sleep condition known as Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behaviour Disorder (or RBD for short). In RBD, the switch that normally turns off movement during sleep is faulty, causing people to move or shout while asleep.

Sleep disorders are interesting for neurologists because they can be an early indicator of problems with the nervous system. Michele and her colleagues are particularly focusing on the link between RBD and Parkinson’s because many people with Parkinson’s are thought to suffer from RBD as well. A person who goes on to develop Parkinson’s may have RBD for many years before the problems begin with their movement when they are awake. So might it be possible to use RBD as a sort of ‘biomarker’ for Parkinson’s?

The first step for the research team is to invite people who are already coming into clinic for an NHS sleep study to wear some new kit at the same time. The recording equipment includes a motion sensor worn on the wrist, a pulse and oxygen sensor worn on a fingertip, and a sleep monitoring device which worn on the head, chest and abdomen. Michele and colleagues in the Oxford Institute of Biomedical Engineering will ‘train’ computer algorithms to correctly interpret the data that the wearable kit collects. The team then hope to recruit people from across the UK who have either RBD or Parkinson’s, to wear the sleep monitoring devices at home for a few nights every six months.