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Spotlight on Research Supported by PDF

Profile of David Sulzer, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry
Columbia University, New York, NY

At the Parkinson's Disease Foundation (PDF), we invest a substantial portion of our research dollars in funding basic science to determine the causes of, and find a cure for, Parkinson's disease. An exciting microcosm of this work is the laboratory of Dr. David Sulzer at Columbia University.For more than 20 years, Dr. Sulzer has worked to provide a deeper understanding of why the brain works the way it does, and to shed light on what goes wrong when Parkinson's occurs.

Dr. Sulzer's days are divided between his work in the labs and his educational endeavors. His laboratory has two focuses, the first of which is to understand how the brain circuits that control learning, motor movement and habit formation function in a normal brain. The literature on this topic is surprisingly scant, and Dr. Sulzer's team has enriched it significantly. One of its contributions is to develop a new technology, using an electrode and carbon fibers, that allows researchers to actually see neurons as they release dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is deficient in Parkinson's. Through this technology, one can take a more in-depth look at how the circuits of the brain interact.

The second focus of Dr. Sulzer's lab is to explore the question of why neurons die in this disease.He and his colleagues are currently concentrating on alpha-synuclein, a protein that in mutant forms causes some cases of inherited Parkinson's, and is likely mishandled in almost all cases of the disease. Their hypothesis: that in Parkinson's disease, mutant and altered forms of alpha-synuclein cannot be disposed of properly and build up inside of neurons, eventually turning into a structure called the Lewy body (a pathological hallmark of Parkinson's disease).

Work by Dr. Sulzer's laboratory in collaboration with Dr. Ana Maria Cuervo at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine showed how alpha-synuclein is normally broken down, and why this does not occur with the mutant forms in Parkinson's. Their recent work is indicating why normal alpha-synuclein breakdown does not occur in the most common forms of Parkinson's, which appears to result from a reaction between the protein and dopamine. With this information, Dr. Sulzer's lab is working to determine how the non-degraded alpha-synuclein then damages neurons. The team is currently experimenting with a viral vector in an animal model of Parkinson's to package and deliver dopamine to these neurons in a way that will prevent the damaging reaction between alpha-synuclein and dopamine.

In 2004, Dr. Sulzer received a $2 million University Training Grant from the NIH to implement and lead Columbia University's Neuroscience Training Program. A total of 40 postdoctoral fellows trained from 2004–2009 will benefit from Dr. Sulzer's instruction.

Dr. Sulzer serves as a reviewer for several prestigious scientific journals, organizes conferences for numerous scientific societies, lectures widely and is a reviewer for grant proposals submitted to PDF and other PD organizations. He has mentored nearly 30 postdoctoral candidates, fellows and visiting students at Columbia University.

Dr. Sulzer's work is supported as part of PDF's Center Grant to Columbia University.
For fiscal year 2007, PDF's grant of more than $2 million provides important funding to one of the world's largest and most influential teams of Parkinson's disease scientists.