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August 5, 2002

Study tests herbal remedy against Parkinson's

By Janet Christenbury

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 difficulty.
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
$5.7 million.

“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 surgery.

For more information, contact Emory Health Connection at (404) 778-7777.