Above: Associate Professor Kay Double
By Yasmin Noone
A group of Australian neuroscientists is currently leading the research world with a study which aims to demystify the causes of Restless Legs Sydrome (RLS) and move one step closer to developing a cure for the common sleep and movement condition.
According to the preliminary results of a new Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) study, people with RLS have up to 80 per cent less function in the brain region responsible for movement control, compared with healthy people.
The researchers also now believe that the disorder, which causes a powerful urge to move the legs, particularly at night, could boast similar characteristics to Parkinson’s disease.
But, in order to compare and contrast the two diseases that are highly prevalent in older populations, NeuRA must first recruit people aged between 50 and 70 to participate in the study.
Lead researcher and neuroscientist, Associate Professor Kay Double, is on the hunt for older ‘healthy’ people, those living with Parkinson’s disease and older adults with RLS to get involved and help her team to investigate the condition.
“This study is helping us understand what happens in the brain to cause RLS symptoms, which will help us find better treatments,” said A/Prof Double.
“…What we are trying to do now is get people who are a little bit older than those people we have already studied to date, [who have been mostly] in the 40-to-50 year age group.
“We know they are out there but we need to tell them what they are doing and get them involved and get them in.”
A/Prof Double believes there is a massive cross-over between RLS and Parkinson’s but unlike the latter condition, very little is known about the changes that occur in the brain of a person with RLS.
“Both [conditions] affect the movement circuits in the brain, are treated with the same drugs – dopamine agonists – and affect the same chemical in the brain.
“Both also impact upon the levels of iron in the brain although in different ways.
“In Parkinson’s, there is an increase in the iron levels that control movement. In RLS, there is a decrease in the iron levels in the parts of the brain that movement.
“In Parkinson’s motor problems also arise because of the death of brain cells responsible for movement. [We don’t] know if the same thing happens in RLS as no one has ever looked.
“So what we are doing is studying the people who live with RLS throughout their life … and we are looking at the number of cells in their brain and their functioning.”
A/Prof Double estimates that around one in 20 Australians experience the syndrome and says prevalence is higher in the older age groups.
“RLS is very common. The studies show that anything from two to 10 per cent of the population suffers from it, although the degree varies in severity from quite mild to severe.
She explained that someone at the milder tail of the spectrum might experience slight symptoms in the evening, while someone at the opposite end could be severely debilitated by disorder and have their quality of life compromised.
“What we’d really like to do is to cure people, not just manage the symptoms, which is what we do now.”
To be involved in the research, participants (either healthy, those living with RLS or Parkinson’s) must be willing to travel to either Randwick, NSW or Adelaide, SA and be able to spare anything from one to three hours, three times over six months.
Researchers will study participants’ movement and memory and only do MRI scans on a select few from the group who meet certain health criteria.
A/Prof Double encourages aged and community carers to spread the word and raise awareness about the condition and the study.
“The best reason to get involved is to simply help with the research. Researchers can study for a long time and come up with ideas but unless the community gets involved in their work, they can’t test their ideas or come up with a cure.
“We do need to study people with the disorder to find a cure for it.
“I believe we can find a cure for it but we first need to do the research and for that, we need participants.”
To find out more, contact the clinical studies coordinator on 02 9399 1155 or click here.