Menopause & PD: An Interview with APDA Researcher Dr. Roberta Marongiu
As part of our A Closer Look blog, the Ask the Researcher series is designed to give you some insight (a closer look, if you will) into some of the dedicated APDA-funded researchers who are laser-focused on finding better treatments and a cure for Parkinson’s disease (PD). Today’s installment introduces you to Dr. Roberta Marongiu, an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. Her research interests lie in understanding the brain mechanisms that influence the differences in the onset and course of PD in men and women. Pre-menopausal women have a reduced risk of developing PD as compared to men and post-menopausal women, suggesting that estrogen plays an important role in protecting against PD. Dr. Marongiu is studying a mouse model of PD and characterizing the effects of inducing menopause on PD pathology and clinical manifestations.
APDA is very selective and strategic in our research funding and we are proud to support some of the brightest researchers who are at the forefront of this disease. We are excited about Dr. Marongiu’s current work and have asked her some questions so you can learn more about the work APDA is making possible.
Q: What is the overarching goal of your research? What do you hope to find out?
A: The overall goal of my research is to understand the contribution of menopause transition (peri-menopause) on the onset and progression of PD in terms of pathology (alpha-synuclein accumulation, substantia nigra neurodegeneration, chronic inflammation) and motor dysfunction.
Our hypothesis is that peri-menopause accelerates the onset and progression of PD, and this should be reflected in early motor deficits and more severe pathology in our female mouse model of menopause compared to intact females, and similar to what we would expect to observe in male mice.
With a novel multidisciplinary approach, our work is the first to study the influence of peri-menopause on PD progression, and an important step in the identification of its underlying molecular mechanisms.
Q: Could you describe how you perform your studies?
A: I use two novel mouse models. The first one is the mouse model of PD generated by injecting the gene for human alpha-synuclein into the substantia nigra of the mouse -specifically in the dopaminergic cells that are usually lost in human PD. This leads to accumulation of alpha-synuclein in the substantia nigra which can cause neurodegeneration and motor deficits. The second one, is the innovative model of accelerated ovarian failure (AOF), induced by injecting low doses of a toxin into the mice that can model the transitional process seen in human menopause.
After inducing AOF in our PD mice, we will measure the extent of motor dysfunction over time in three tasks that measure spontaneous motor activity. At the conclusion of these tests, we will study the mouse brains to measure the accumulation of alpha-synuclein, the extent of neurodegeneration and the chronic inflammatory response. These measurements will be correlated with the extent of movement problems observed in the mice.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what you have found out so far?
A: The first phase of our study was to develop our mouse model of PD by injecting alpha-synuclein into the substantia nigra. The generation of this model is an important step for our research as it allows us to study the effect of AOF on neuronal damage in the substantia nigra.
We are currently analyzing these mice to quantify the degree of nigral dopaminergic neurodegeneration, alpha-synuclein accumulation, and inflammatory response compared to similar known models of PD. We are also using our new PD mouse model in combination with AOF to quantify the influence of AOF on PD pathology and motor deficits. These data will allow us to better understand the role of menopause transition on the susceptibility of a female’s brain to PD.
Q: What fuels your passion for research?
A: My passion for research was always driven by the desire to help people and find a cure for devastating brain disorders. Specifically, I dedicated my career to studying pathways and molecules involved in PD pathogenesis with the ultimate goal of identifying targets for the development of drug or gene therapies for the disease.
Moreover, the interaction with PD patients through my non-profit organization stopPD (Support and Training to Overcome Parkinson’s Disease; www.stop-pd.org) inspires my research ideas and encourages me to keep my research focused on the issues that are most debilitating for patients.
Q: You also have a second calling as a PD Boxing coach. Can you tell us about that endeavor?
A: I co-founded a non-profit organization called stoPD with my husband, Alex Montaldo, with the mission to create and provide innovative complementary programs to improve the quality of life for people with PD. Our first program was focused on non-contact boxing and high intensity exercise. We are currently collaborating with the New York University Drama Therapy department, Fresco Institute for Parkinson’s Disease, and a private company called Neurostorm Studios on a theater program toward the goal of improving speech, cognition and spatial awareness in PD patients. It’s important to me to help people who are currently dealing with PD, while we strive to find a cure for this devastating disorder.
Tips & takeaways:
- Important PD research is constantly taking place across the APDA network.
- Marongiu is a recipient of an APDA research grant for the 2018-2019 academic year. Read more about all of the current research APDA is funding.
- Marongiu hopes to understand how estrogen and the menopause process affect the development of PD.
- We are only able to fund this research because we receive donations from dedicated people like you. If you would like to support this critical work, please click here.