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Nov. 9, 2017

Could the air you breathe be a factor in Parkinson’s?

Could the air you breathe, specifically through your nose, be a factor in the development of Parkinson’s disease? That’s a question a Michigan State University researcher is looking to answer in a new federally funded study.

Honglei Chen, an epidemiologist who has spent years researching Parkinson’s and the role sense of smell plays in disease development, has received a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Defense, or DoD.

The award is part of a multi-institutional, four-year project totaling $4.37 million and is funded through the DoD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program. The initiative supports research for health issues that can affect veterans such as Parkinson’s, traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, and prosthetics.

“It’s been well-established through previous research that poor sense of smell is an early marker for Parkinson’s,” Chen said. “Now, we need to learn more about what causes this loss of smell and how this might relate to inflammation and the death of nerve cells in the brain.”

Parkinson’s affects the way individuals move, usually later in life, and is caused by malfunctioning brain cells that don’t communicate with one another and eventually die. It’s estimated that 90 percent of people with the disease can have issues with their sense of smell or can lose it entirely in the years before diagnosis.

Chen will be one of four scientists who will investigate the biological and environmental factors that could contribute to the disease. Other scientists include Caleb Finch from the University of Southern California, Todd Morgan from the Leonard Davis Institute and Patrik Brundin, from the Van Andel Research Institute, who will lead the overall project.

Chen’s research will compare older women who have lost their sense of smell to those who have not and look for correlations between air pollutants and the inflammation these contaminants may cause in the nose and brain.

He also will look at the genetic profiles of participants, as well as their health histories – including the use of anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen – to see what role these factors may play in Parkinson’s risk.

In 2005, Chen and his research colleagues published initial evidence that ibuprofen could potentially reduce the chances of developing the disease.

“This is an exciting opportunity to join forces with other scientists and search for the origins of Parkinson's disease,” he said. “Our findings have a good chance of being able to better evaluate a person’s risk earlier on and develop treatments to prevent disease progression down the road.”

Chen is part of MSU’s Global Impact Initiative, an effort to help accelerate research in key areas affecting the world such as health and energy.

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