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Antonio Strafella, a Department of Medicine professor, was awarded a Canada Research Chair (CRC) position for his groundbreaking work on Parkinson’s disease.

Strafella was one of three U of T professors honoured as a CRC, a national, government-funded program that recognizes excellence in research. The other awardees include U of T Dentistry’s Professor Céline Lévesque and Aerospace Engineering’s Professor Prasanth Nair. The trio will receive $500,000 over five years to use for their research endeavours.

“I’m very happy. It’s very difficult and competitive to get this award so it’s an honor,” Strafella said. “This chair will give me some insights on how to proceed and what is needed, what is lacking, and what direction to go. It’s a great opportunity to continue what I’ve done so far.”

Based at the Toronto Western Hospital with a laboratory at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Strafella focuses on using neuroimaging to identify the brain stimulations of patients plagued by Parkinson’s disease.

Using positron emission topography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Strafella aims to identify the abnormalities underlying the behavioural and cognitive problems that arise in Parkinson’s patients.


“Sometimes we ask the patients to perform some motor tasks or memory tasks and we are able to see the activation. We see these lights that show the parts of the brain that become active and parts that are less active so we focus on the interaction between these areas,” he explained.

Parkinson’s disease is generally considered a motor disorder; sufferers experience tremors or slowness in movement. But, Strafella said, the behavioural and cognitive problems experienced by patients are often not given enough attention.

He added that the patients’ complaints are often not given enough attention so, through his research, he aims to shed light on these problems and bridge the gap of knowledge. Another one of his concerns is the double-edged sword nature of Parkinson’s medication.

“One of the major problems with [the medication] is that you can improve their motor symptoms but [their] behavior can also worsen,” Strafella said, describing some of the problems that patients develop like gambling, compulsive shopping, hyper-sexuality, and eating disorders.

“If you have a patient who is developing these impulse control disorders but is doing better from a motor point of view, it is sometimes hard to stop these medications because they do not want to go back to the slowness, having tremors and being rigid because these are socially embarrassing,” he explained.

However, only 14 per cent of patients develop these problems. So, according to Strafella, his research’s next phase is understanding why exactly that 14 per cent of patients experience complications while the other 86 per cent don’t.

Strafella has dedicated his life to the study of Parkinson’s disease and he is grateful for the support that the CRC has given him in understanding such a complicated disease.

“If I was the reviewer from CRC, and if I saw someone addressing these points I would definitely consider this as an important area to research,” he said.

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