Can the root of an “herbal compound” help alleviate
sleep disturbances in patients suffering with Parkinson’s
disease? Emory researchers are taking a close look at this form
of alternative medicine through a multimillion-dollar grant from
the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The herbal compound being studied is valerian root, which is used
widely in Eastern Europe, Germany and Russia to treat anxiety and
sleep disorders; previous studies have shown valerian root has sleep-promoting
and calming effects. But researchers have never studied the effects
of valerian root when taken by Parkinson’s patients.
“This is the first trial of its kind,” said Donald Bliwise,
professor of neurology and a sleep and aging expert in the School
of Medicine. “Eighty to 90 percent of Parkinson’s patients
have disturbed sleep. We believe these disturbances evolve because
the same systems in the brain that control motor functions overlap
with areas that control the state of sleep.”
Disturbed sleep in Parkinson’s patients is described as difficulty
falling asleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, excessive movement
during sleep, acting out dreams and experiencing hallucinations.
Disturbed sleep is one of many symptoms of Parkinson’s disease,
a progressive disorder of the central nervous system affecting more
than 1 million people in the United States.
Other symptoms include tremor, stiffness, slow movement and balance
Bliwise and other Emory researchers are focusing on the sleep disturbance
aspect in this trial, hoping that better sleep at night will lead
to improved motor function when participants wake up in the morning.
Participants in this double-blind study will be randomly selected
to receive valerian root pills or placebos. Participants will take
two pills one hour before bedtime for 16 consecutive nights. They
will be asked to spend a total of five nights—three at the
start of the trial and two at the end—in observation at the
Laboratory for Sleep, Aging and Chronobiology at Wesley Woods.
Following the end of the 17-day study period (no medication will
be given on the first night in the sleep lab), all subjects will
receive a seven-day supply of valerian root to try during an open-label
phase. Participants will be asked to keep a sleep diary throughout
the 17 days of the trial and through the seven-day open-label phase.
The trial is one of three studies in the Center for Research on
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in Neurodegenerative
Diseases. The National Center for Comple-mentary and Alternative
Medi-cine (NCCAM) at the NIH awarded Emory a five-year grant for
the center and three individual research grants totaling
“The NCCAM focuses on application of traditional research
designs to non-traditional treatments,” said Bliwise, lead
investigator of the valerian root study. “The idea is to test
these possible treatments in rigorous academic environments, such
as Emory. Emory is well-known for its research in Parkinson’s
disease, so this trial and the creation of the CAM Center at Emory
allow us to really build on our strengths.”
Two other Emory researchers are helping oversee the study: David
Rye, associate professor of neurology, and Michael Decker, instructor
in neurology, serve as coprincipal investigators.
Recruitment for the study is under way. Participants must have Parkinson’s
disease, be 45 to 75 years old and have disturbed sleep. They must
be stable on their medications and cannot have had previous Parkinson’s
For more information, contact Emory Health Connection at (404) 778-7777.