Professor John Reynolds

“The earlier we can diagnose a disease, the better we can treat and manage it, so it’s something the world will look to with interest.”

The contribution that the Otago Medical Research Foundation makes to progressing novel research ideas cannot be underestimated.

The Foundation funded one of Professor John Reynolds’ projects into Parkinson’s disease recently and he is now working on a new and potentially game-changing trial into the disease.

His non-traditional approach to identifying people who have early signs associated with Parkinson’s is one that involves dreams.

It is already known that there is a link between those who develop Parkinson’s disease, and people who act out dreams in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycle of their sleep.   That doesn’t mean that all people experiencing physically acting dreams with movements and vocal sounds will develop Parkinson’s, but it is possible that it may be a pre-cursor for some people.

Just how that works, and how it can be then turned into a predictor is key.

John’s team at the University of Otago’s Anatomy Department is developing a simple computer-based behavioural test to determine if people who have this REM sleep behaviour disorder share similar signs to those associated with the development of Parkinson’s disease.  This tool could be used as early diagnosis, but may also potentially provide research pathways for treatment and even prevention of Parkinson’s in the longer term.

“The earlier we can diagnose a disease, the better we can treat and manage it, so it’s something the world will look to with interest.”

The test he and Dr Mariana Leriche have developed is already showing promise from studying small numbers of volunteers they have been able to find through the sleep clinics in Dunedin. They are now developing the algorithms and aim to put a test online to assess far greater numbers of people experiencing this dream-enacting behaviour.  “This deep learning from more study participants will help us to form a better picture of what is going on, and for us to finetune the testing process.”

John is passionate about translational research, having taken the path to a PhD in medical research via medical electronics, developing an interest in rehabilitation, particularly in strokes and Parkinson’s disease in the elderly on the way.

“Developing tools that can potentially diagnose Parkinson’s is a long journey we are only just beginning on, but it could potentially be a significant global development. I would be very satisfied to get to the end of my career knowing that I have contributed to this.”

“This research simply wouldn’t have happened without the willingness of the Foundation to take a risk on a hunch.  With the subsequent data, the small study then attracts large-scale funding and becomes significant.”

“It’s a great testing ground for initial research and I’m grateful the Foundation gave us a go on this study.”