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Pioneering Rehabilitation

Burke Medical Research Institute Student-Scientist Awarded Summer Fellowship to Study Parkinson’s Disease

Published August 1, 2013

As an avid pianist and dancer, Ava Weibman of Bedford Corners, N.Y., has always taken an interest in movement. In the summer of 2012, after completing her freshman year atOberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, she followed that curiosity further by shadowing a neurologist specializing in treating Parkinson’s disease, a chronic, progressive movement disorder.

“That was truly an enlightening experience not only because I learned more about the motor symptoms like tremor and balance impairment, but also how Parkinson’s disease is a systemic disorder and produces many non-motor symptoms including depression, fatigue and loss of smell,” Weibman said. “I also learned that we know very little about the disorder.”

An ambitious pre-med student majoring in biology and neuroscience, Weibman decided to pursue further study on Parkinson’s disease and in the process, won a $4,000 Summer Student Fellowship from the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF) and a 10-week laboratory experience in Burke Medical Research Institute’s Laboratory for Neuronal Specification.

“I’m very excited about contributing to research that has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of life for so many people,” she said. According to PDF, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year.

“Research is at the forefront of understanding diseases and developing the best treatments and cures,” Weibman continued. “By participating in the research of a disorder that currently has no treatments available to either cure the disease or permanently eliminate its symptoms, I hope to learn the approaches that scientists take as well as the questions they ask so that I may someday follow in their footsteps.”

Weibman is currently helping to get a new Parkinson’s disease research project at Burke off the ground. The project focuses on olfactory bulbs, the initial processing center for odorant information, which is one of the first regions of the brain affected by Parkinson’s disease causing a loss of smell. The research aims to identify the specific neurons in the olfactory bulb affected by the disease. From there, the lab hopes to find biomarkers that can help identify patients at risk or are in the early stages of the disease and provide an intervention before motor symptoms appear—which means the patient is already at a late stage of the disease.

“It’s hard to understate her contribution to our work,” said John Cave, Ph.D., director of Burke’s Laboratory for Neuronal Specification and Weibman’s mentor. “From the histology to the sheer man hours logging data, she’s been invaluable to getting these first stages off the ground. Ideally, we get sufficient preliminary data [this summer] and can put together a competitive grant application to take it to the next level.”

According to James Beck, Ph.D., director of Research Programs at PDF, “The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation is proud to support Ms. Weibman as a Summer Student Fellow to cultivate her early interest in the field and to prepare her to be one of its future leaders. She will work to identify which of the many neurons in the brain involved in smell are lost to Parkinson’s disease that may even lay the foundation for early diagnosis one day.”

PDF’s Summer Fellowship Program supports advanced undergraduates, graduate and medical students in their pursuit of Parkinson’s-related summer research projects. As a whole, PDF funds promising scientific research and supports people living with Parkinson’s through educational programs and services.

Funded by grants and private donations, Burke’s Medical Research Institute engages in cutting-edge basic, translational and clinical research to bring about new knowledge that can become the basis for future rehabilitation therapies in the areas of stroke, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury and other neurological conditions. The institute, which also is academically affiliated with Weill Cornell Medical College, strives to assist patients to recover more fully, not just decrease disability, which has been the focus of mainstream rehabilitation research historically.