Rights: The University of Waikato Published 21 July 2007 Download

Dr Richard Watts from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Canterbury talks about using MRI to look at the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease.

Richard and a team based at the Van der Veer Institute for Parkinson’s & Brain Research are using MRI to generate high resolution structural images to look at the size of different structures in the brain as well as using diffusion MRI that looks at water movement to see what cellular changes are taking place. They are also using a third technique of functional MRI to look at parts of the brain involved in memory to see how they are working and spectroscopy to look at chemical changes.


What is Parkinson'€™s disease first of all? Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder so these people, initially present with symptoms where they have problems moving, perhaps with walking, they have poor co-ordination. In this particular Iinstitute, this is the Van der Veer Institute for Parkinson’s and Brain Research, we’re interested in the sub-set of Parkinson’s patients who later go on to develop other symptoms, more cognitive symptoms, so they develop dementia. And at the moment we don’t know which of these patients are going to develop dementia and which are not. And part of the research is to try and identify some kind of marker that we can see on our MRI scan, which says this is what’s gonna happen, and potentially we can then go and treat that. We can give them drugs which will prevent this kind of damage over the longer term.

So we work with a whole range of people on these kinds of projects. I work with a psychologist, and I work with neurologists and radiologists, and they all have different skills. The psychologists really understand the functional aspects of the brain very well. The neurologist is the person who’s actually dealing with these patients; he’s dealing with them and treating them from day to day. And the radiologist has expertise in looking at the images and identifying abnormalities in those images.

My own role is on the technical side of this. My expertise is data acquisition, in other words, programming the MRI scanner to acquire the data. And I can look at images in a more quantitative sense. Rather than just looking at the images and saying there’s something abnormal there, I can compare images from one brain to another. And a lot of what we do is to take two groups of images. So we might take a group of images, from Parkinson’s patients who do have dementia and a group of images from Parkinson’s patients who don’t, and the question would then be is there a difference between them. And we can look at these images and we can do that using some fairly complex computational techniques.