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NIH Record

NINDS Sponsors Workshop on the 'Dopamine Connection'

By Shannon E. Garnett

NINDS recently sponsored a workshop on "The Dopamine Connection in Restless Legs Syndrome, Periodic Limb Movement Disorder, Parkinsonism and Narcolepsy: Toward a Better Understanding of Common Mechanisms in Uncommon Disorders." The meeting was a collaborative effort with the NIH Office of Rare Diseases, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research of NHLBI and the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation.

The purpose of the 2-day workshop was to bring together basic and clinical scientists with expertise in the fields of central and peripheral motor and sensory systems, sleep, and movement disorders to assess the current level of knowledge of dopamine in relation to four uncommon disorders — restless legs syndrome (RLS), periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), parkinsonism and narcolepsy — and to focus on the poorly understood areas of these disorders. The workshop was also intended to serve as a catalyst for increasing scientific interest in these disorders and identifying new approaches to research on the dopamine connection.

Dr. Mahlon DeLong discusses the dopamine connection.

RLS is a neurological disorder characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs and an urge to move them for relief. It is estimated that the majority of RLS patients also have PLMD, a movement disorder characterized by repetitive stereotyped movements of the limbs, primarily the legs, during sleep. And, recent research has found that PLMD occurs in many patients with parkinsonism — a group of conditions characterized by tremor, rigidity, postural instability and bradykinesia. Narcolepsy is a disabling neurological disorder that affects the control of sleep and wakefulness. The causes of RLS, PLMD, parkinsonism and narcolepsy are unknown, but all are thought to involve central dopamine mechanisms, and all of the conditions react to dopaminergic agents. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that transmits impulses from one nerve cell to another.

On the first day of the meeting, which was held at the NIH Neuroscience Center, workshop leaders provided a scientific overview of what is known about dopamine and the four disorders. Roundtable and working group discussions on the role dopamine plays in each disorder were held on the second day. Discussion leaders included researchers from the NINDS intramural division as well as other scientists from institutions around the country who are studying the dopamine connection.

The topics of greatest interest included: How are dopaminergic systems altered in the four disorders to produce the variety of clinical presentations? How can research on the dopamine connection in these disorders benefit from advances in the field of genetics? And, what are the most promising scientific opportunities and where does research go from here? Greater understanding of the role of dopamine in these disorders may provide a key to new treatment and prevention strategies.

Response from the workshop has been positive, according to Dr. Charlotte McCutchen, program director in the NINDS systems and cognition neuroscience cluster, who organized the workshop. She said a number of the scientists who attended are devoting renewed attention to the dopamine connection in these disorders.

Dr. Charlotte McCutchen organized the workshop.

The workshop was described by Dr. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, as a prototype that should be emulated for generating progress in needed areas. It was also hailed by Dr. Harold Varmus, former NIH director, for bringing together "basic and clinical experts in divergent but complementary fields" that "can refocus and catalyze research and lead both to new opportunities and to unprecedented advances."

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