Centre collaborates in ground breaking study to test new therapies for Parkinson's disease

A ground-breaking study is to test new therapies for Parkinson’s disease on robots – replacing the need for animal testing. Over the next year, academics from Heriot-Watt University and the International Institute of Neuroscience in Brazil will join forces on the pioneering study: Neurorobotics Model of Parkinson’s disease. Currently, scientists use rats in experiments to find new treatments but in this study, data already recorded from other animals in Brazil and robots in UK will be used instead.

Despite numerous attempts there is still no cure and therapies often rely heavily on incomplete animal models of the disease. The brain regions linked to Parkinson’s are also complex, limiting a complete understanding of the illness. Now, this study will combine neuroscience expertise with robotics, computational brain modelling and machine learning.

Parkinson’s disease currently affects more than 3 per cent of people over the age of 65, with figures set to double in the next 15 years.

Dr Patricia A. Vargas, founding director of the Robotics Laboratory at Heriot-Watt University and lead collaborator said: “This is a fantastic research project for our team to be working on. Not only will we possibly see new therapies for a debilitating llness, but it will also reduce the need to use animals for research.

“Parkinson’s disease affects individuals and families across the world, and scientists in Brazil and worldwide have been working hard to come up with new therapies but this project clearly demonstrates the positive affect robots can have on medical research, which can advance our knowledge about Parkinson’s beyond what is obtained through the use of anatomical and physiological studies alone. This piece of research will be beneficial to millions of people across the world. We will help develop new knowledge and new therapies whilst reducing the need to use animals in this research altogether.”

Annie Macleod, Scotland Director at Parkinson’s UK said: “As a charity, Parkinson’s UK subscribes to the “3 Rs” policy — to reduce, refine and replace the use of animals in research wherever possible. We warmly welcome this study and the potential it holds for reducing or replacing the use of animals in future.”

The study will see robots expertise transferred from the Robotics Lab at Heriot-Watt University to the Edmond and Lily Safra International institute of Neuroscience in Brazil. The project was made possible by funding from The Newton Fund and Royal Society in UK under the Newton Advanced Fellowship scheme. 

Dr Renan Moioli, the Overseas Fellow, said: "The project will bring together scientists from UK and Brazil in an effort to further understand Parkinson's disease. The opportunity to work closely with one of the UK's top robotics group will strengthen our cooperation and advance our research groups.”  

The research is announced as Heriot-Watt University embarks on a Year of Health campaign.

In 2019, Heriot-Watt is celebrating its Year of Health, a calendar of engagement that spans schools, communities, businesses and government. Throughout the year, the campaign will highlight the university’s research and the ground-breaking discoveries that are helping drive innovations in healthcare, diagnosis and treatment.