Amie L. Peterson, M.D.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of PDF's quarterly newsletter, News & Review.

Can something as basic as taking your vitamins ease some of the effects of Parkinson’s disease (PD)?  This is the question behind the research of Amie L. Peterson, M.D., a movement disorders fellow at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, OR.  She is looking at vitamin D — found as a nutrient in foods such as fish and milk, in dietary supplements, and most importantly, created by the skin with sun exposure — as a potential therapy to improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s.  

Dr. Peterson’s research is funded under the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF)-Parkinson Study Group (PSG) Mentored Research Award, which expects its recipients to focus on “patient-centered research.”  Dr. Peterson emphasizes that addressing falls and balance is vital to the safety and well-being of people with PD.  These problems are not just bothersome, but also dangerous; in fact, they are a major cause of injuries and mortality in later-stage PD.  Yet there is no medication available that a person with Parkinson’s can take to ease balance issues and reduce his or her risk for falls.

Could vitamin D be the answer?  Studies show that people with PD have lower vitamin D levels than do healthy individuals.  Furthermore, research among people who have balance issues — but are not living with PD — has suggested that vitamin D supplements may lead to a decrease in falls.  

To see if the same finding holds true for people living with PD, Dr. Peterson is conducting a pilot study among 40 such individuals.  She will benefit from the knowledge of her mentors, Jay Nutt, M.D., a well-known movement disorder specialist and Fay Horak, Ph.D., an expert on gait and balance.  Dr. Peterson will compare vitamin D levels and balance performance among people with Parkinson’s disease to see if there is any correlation between the two.  

She is planning a larger study to investigate more thoroughly whether people who take a vitamin D supplement versus a placebo find an improvement in balance and strength, and a decrease in their falls.

As Dr. Peterson puts it, “Down the road, if the vitamin D approach works, it could demonstrate a simple way for people with PD to improve daily life and avoid potential injuries.  And if it turns out that vitamin D is not the answer, the research will still have improved our understanding of gait, balance and strength, which are sorely under-addressed issues in Parkinson’s.”

The Mentored Research Award is funded by PDF’s Advancing Parkinson’s Therapies Innovations Grant, which, in FY2010, totaled $175,000.