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Posted 01.22.08


COLUMBIA, MO - Parkinson's disease and epilepsy strike millions of people each year. They also affect countless dogs, and veterinarians at the University of Missouri are working to find ways to treat these and other neurological diseases in both species.

Dennis O'Brien and Elvis (the dog).Dennis O'Brien, professor of veterinary medicine and surgery and director of the comparative neurology program in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and a team of researchers are investigating the causes and potential treatments for a number of diseases that can be fatal in both humans and animals.

Dennis O'Brien, Neil Olson."These diseases have been recognized in dogs for many years, but now we have the tools to do something about it," said O'Brien, who was recently named as the first Chancellor's Chair of Excellence in Comparative Neurology. "In the past, there was little that we could do other than treat the symptoms. Now, with pets, we can identify the genes responsible and breed away from some of these problems. We also have the human connection to these diseases, and as we learn from research on both species, we can apply it to both humans and animals and everyone will benefit."

Currently, researchers with the comparative neurology program are investigating several diseases that can affect dogs and humans. These diseases include:

  • Epilepsy - a common disease characterized by repetitive seizures. It has many different causes, but it is thought to be a hereditary condition in many dogs.
  • Parkinson's disease - caused by a loss of a neurotransmitter, dopamine, in nerve cells. Symptoms include tremors, stiff muscles or movement, and difficulty with balancing and walking. In humans, Parkinson's is a disease of the elderly, while in dogs it is a hereditary disease affecting young dogs.
  • Degenerative Myelopathy - a common neurological disease that affects the spinal cords in adult dogs. Typically, the dog will lose function of its rear legs and, eventually, will be paralyzed.

At the same time that researchers are investigating these diseases, O'Brien and his team also are working in the MU Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital, applying their knowledge to help dogs now. For example, the program recently received an underwater treadmill that will help rehabilitate dogs that have suffered spinal or nerve injuries and are temporarily paralyzed.

"Moving in water is great therapy," O'Brien said. "You don't have to support any body weight, but at the same time, the muscles have to work through some resistance. This helps to exercise the limbs."

A portion of the earnings from the Chancellor's Fund for Excellence Endowment, valued at approximately $7 million, will fund the first Chancellor's Chair of Excellence in Comparative Neurology. The Chancellor's Fund contains unrestricted donations to be used for the University's highest needs and priorities.

"With equipment and financial resources, both our faculty and patients will benefit," said Neil Olson, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. "We also know that the continuing research led by Dr. O'Brien and his team will lead to additional insight into the causes of these diseases that affect both dogs and humans. We're excited about the confidence that the chancellor has with us to fund one of his chairs of excellence here in the College."



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