Parkinson’s Disease Research in Women (Podcast)

Studying gender-specific health factors promises new insight into diagnosis, prognosis, treatment

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Women with Parkinson’s disease (PD) face faster disease progression and a higher mortality rate compared with men. However, women are historically underrepresented in PD research, and questionnaires used to collect data from people with PD fail to explore any gender-specific issues.

“None of them ask questions about, for example, pregnancies or birth control ― things that affect mostly women,” says Ignacio Mata, PhD, assistant staff in the Genomic Medicine Institute within Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute. “It’s a missed opportunity to really understand how those factors might play a role in Parkinson’s disease in terms of risk and disease progression.”

A doctoral candidate working in Dr. Mata’s lab designed a questionnaire geared toward women to help begin to understand the role of women-specific health factors in the severity and progression of PD. In the latest episode of Cleveland Clinic’s Neuro Pathways podcast, Dr. Mata discusses this research and provides broader context on observed gender differences in patients with PD. He delves into:

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  • Differences in motor and nonmotor symptoms between men and women
  • Health factors that may contribute to disease progression, including pregnancy and postnatal depression
  • The importance of conversations about women-specific topics between patient and neurologist
  • How data obtained from the novel questionnaire may be applied to future research
  • The impact of inclusive research on clinical trials and patient care more broadly

Click the podcast player above to listen to the 23-minute episode now, or read on for a short edited excerpt. Check out more Neuro Pathways episodes at or wherever you get your podcasts.

This activity has been approved for AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ and ANCC contact hours. After listening to the podcast, you can claim your credit here.

Excerpt from the podcast

Dr. Mata: One of the things that is very difficult about Parkinson’s disease is that once somebody starts developing symptoms, 80% of the neurons that produce dopamine are dead. We believe that the disease has started maybe 10 or 20 years before that.

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This is why we need to incorporate women-specific health factors into our models to be able to predict who might be at high risk to develop Parkinson’s disease. If we can identify individuals who are high risk, we could potentially use neuroprotective therapies. If we can get to that point, we could use these models to really identify the subgroup in the population that needs to be treated with neuroprotection. Since we don’t know much about this disease specifically in women, I think we are currently in a worse position to be able to predict which women might develop the disease. It would be huge to equal the balance and make sure we can do a good job in both sexes.

This also speaks to the efforts of the National Institutes of Health to make sure that both females and males are used in animal models. For many, many years, only the males were used in animal models because the females go through the cycle. That makes disease a lot harder to understand because it is more heterogeneous.

This is analogous to my group’s research into Parkinson’s disease in underrepresented ethnic populations, particularly Latinos. Originally, Latinos were not included in the studies because they were considered so complex and people said it was better just to exclude them than try to deal with the complexity. The same thing is at play with women in research. I think we just need to deal with it. If we want to have equal opportunities and equal treatment for all people with Parkinson’s disease, we definitely need to include all these factors that are affecting only women.