Three in every 100 people over 65 live with Parkinson’s disease. Undergraduate Lukas Foster’s grandfather was among that three percent, and died after a decade of living with the disease. Today, Foster is researching how to delay the progression of Parkinson’s at Colorado State University.
Parkinson’s disease, the second most prevalent neurodegenerative disease in America, attacks nerve cells in the brain associated with motor skills. Symptoms worsen over time and can include tremors, stiffness and balance issues.
CSU neuroscience professor Ron Tjalkens has researched Parkinson’s for 15 years, and chose Foster as a freshman to assist in his research.
“It’s uncommon for a sophomore undergraduate to work alongside Ph.D. students in a research lab,” Tjalkens said. “As a professor, I’m always happy and fortunate to have talented people work for me.”
In the fall, Foster will be a third-year biomedical sciences major. He is already doing graduate level research and was recognized with a Best of Show award at this year’s CSU Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity showcase.
According to Tjalkens, as nerve cells die, Parkinson’s disease inflames the brain and worsens the effects of the disease. Tjalkens and Foster are researching how to slow neuroinflammation in Parkinson’s patients.
“The big problem with Parkinson’s, like Alzheimer’s, is that all approved drugs are systematic treatments,” Tjalkens said. “There aren’t any drugs on the market that slow down or modify the course of the disease. It’s like putting a Band-Aid over an infection.”
The research being done by Foster and Tjalkens is on its third round of funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the second- largest contributor to Parkinson’s research in the world.
“A lot of people think it is an ‘old man’ disease,” said Kari Buchanan, director of development for the Parkinson Association of the Rockies. “It’s not uncommon for people to be diagnosed when they are 40. That could be your parent or grandparent.”
Buchanan said outreach is an important step towards finding a cure, so college students should be aware of the disease’s impact on society.
“We know Parkinson’s does not just impact the individual – it also affects the families,” she said.
Buchanan said therapy to alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms is tailor-made for the individual. All Parkinson’s cases are different, and treatment ranges from occupational therapy to vocal strengthening singing groups.
“It’s important to learn to live well with it instead of looking at it as a disability,” Buchanan said. “The key is to keep a positive attitude.”
Tjalkens said his research with Foster is an important step towards a new drug to curb the severity of Parkinson’s disease.
After graduation, Foster hopes to go to medical school and is excited to continue his research at CSU.
“Having the chance to research something so close to home, something that affected my family, really means a lot to me,” Foster said. “I could tell how proud my grandfather was of me.”
Collegian Staff Reporter Danny Bishop can be reached at email@example.com.