World's Parkinson's Day Interview with Dr. Robert Chen

Each day in Canada an estimated 25 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

Each day in Canada an estimated 25 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease – a neurodegenerative condition that causes stiffness, and difficulty with walking, balance, and coordination.

Dr. Robert Chen, a senior scientist at the Krembil Brain Institute and Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto, runs a research lab dedicated to devising solutions to help the more than 100,000 Canadians living with the disease. To mark World Parkinson’s Day (April 11), we checked in with Dr. Chen about the latest developments in his lab and his work with the The CenteR for Advancing Neurotechnological Innovation to Application (CRANIA).

Dr. Chen is a part of CRANIA’s Core C lab which develops advanced imaging, electrophysiological measurement and surgical navigation technologies to identify and target specific brain regions associated with disease in grey/white matter with unparalleled accuracy and precision.

He also contributes to CRANIA’s Core E lab which conducts clinical testing of closed loop algorithms, chips, and stimulation protocols with real time physiological/behavioral/cognitive assessments in healthy individuals and those with neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and Epilepsy.

Dr. Chen specializes in human motor physiology, brain plasticity and understanding the pathophysiology and development of new treatments for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and dystonia.  

Can you explain how the research your lab is conducting will help individuals with Parkinson’s?

We are conducting studies to understand the underlying disease mechanisms that cause freezing of gait. If we have a better understanding of these mechanisms we can design better treatments for patients.  

We are also examining the use of different neuromodulation techniques such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), transcranial focused ultrasound stimulation (TUS), and deep brain stimulation (DBS) to target different areas of the brain.

In one study we are testing whether the use of TUS in the cerebellum could be a treatment for those that suffer from freezing of the gait. In another study we are exploring the possibility of combining DBS and TMS to induce brain plasticity.

Brain plasticity is a process in which the brain rewires itself to function differently in response to stimuli or damage. This is important in Parkinson’s disease because brain plasticity is impaired in Parkinson’s disease and restoration of plasticity is a potential treatment.

How do you see neuromodulation treatments for Parkinson’s progressing in the next five years? 

Soon we will be able to use TUS to target new and deeper areas of the brain which will allow us to offer more personalized treatment. A patient suffering from freezing of the gait needs a different area of their brain examined versus some dealing with tremors.  

What are some common misconceptions about your research?

Sometimes people assume studies exploring new treatments are more important than the ones that focus on understanding brain mechanisms and pathophysiology. This is may not be correct. You can’t solve a problem without first understanding what it is. Brain mechanism and pathophysiology studies allow us to design better treatment studies in the future.


Why is important for institutions like CRANIA to exist?

It sparks innovation. CRANIA has given me the opportunity to collaborate with people from different disciplines, with different expertise, in ways I couldn’t have imagined.