College of Medicine works to establish Parkinson’s cure center

The FAU Board of Trustees will continue to discuss the logistics of the Parkinson’s Center of Excellence proposed by the College of Medicine.


Courtesy of Schmidt College of Medicine Marketing

Exterior of the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine.

Mary Rasura, Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated when M3F partnered with the Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute and FAU Schmidt College of Medicine.

The Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine is working on a conceptual plan to create the Parkinson’s Center of Excellence which will focus on creating a cure for Parkinson’s disease by 2040.

Florida has one of the highest rates of Parkinson’s in the country. Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder that is divided into non-motor and motor symptoms, according to Dr. Rebecca Gilbert, vice president and chief scientific officer at the American Parkinson Disease Association.

Official headshot of Dr. Rebecca Gilbert. (Courtesy of the American Parkinson Disease Association)

She stated that motor symptoms include slowness, stiffness, tremor, and balance issues. Non-motor symptoms include sleep, mood, and cognitive disorders as well as physical health issues like irregular blood pressure and frequent urination and constipation.

College of Medicine Dean Dr. Julie Pilitsis is a neurosurgeon with an area of expertise in treating Parkinson’s. She presented the Center of Excellence concept to the university’s Board of Trustees on April 25, where the board tabled voting on the concept for a future meeting. 

On April 28, FAU News Desk published a press release announcing a collaboration between the university and Insightec, a global healthcare company based in Israel. The collaboration will concentrate on utilizing focused ultrasound to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. 

Pilitsis later told the UP that neurodegenerative disorders are common among Florida’s aging population. 

“Alzheimer’s fits in there, Parkinson’s fits in there. And just because of the age of the population, we have so many people that retire here,” she said. “We have as many cases as anybody in the country. I think there’s also interest locally in Alzheimer’s disease. Parkinson’s disease, we just felt we had a critical mass of investigators that could work on this topic.” 

Trustee Piero Bussani introduced the dean’s presentation by speaking about his own experience with Parkinson’s in his family. His father passed away at age 58 after battling both Parkinson’s and dementia. He stated that his children only remember his father from visiting him in the memory care facility and that it wasn’t the way he wanted his children to remember their grandfather. 

“Not just to honor my father and hoping other grandchildren can remember their grandfathers and grandmothers better than mine have, what if we could actually finally make a serious impact on this disease that’s 200 years old?” Bussani said at the April meeting. “What if we had a mandate and the best people and what if FAU could be put on the map globally, not just here, to make this impact? Finally, after 200 years, that’s the opportunity we have. It’s a lofty goal, but it absolutely is achievable.”

Trustee Barbara Feingold wondered about the stated focus on Parkinson’s given other medical issues in the community. 

“And so if we’re going to focus in on this, are we not going to focus in on other areas, or are we going to focus in on other areas and not this? I mean, I think it causes more discussion before we dive in and say this is it,” Feingold said.

On March 29, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito reintroduced the The National Plan to End Parkinson’s Act to Congress after it was originally introduced in 2022. The bill directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “carry out a national project to prevent and cure Parkinson’s.”

Bill sponsors Sen. Capito, Sen. Chris Murphy, Rep. Gus Bilirakis, and Rep. Paul Tonko did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Gilbert said that Parkinson’s is a relatively common condition that seems solvable because of the progress that has been made in the field thus far.

“We know how to treat this amount and there is quite a momentum in the field. There is a tremendous amount of research going on,” she said.

She believes being able to develop a cure for Parkinson’s would be “absolutely transformative for humanity.”

“We’ve come to accept the fact that as people age, they may have these neurodegenerative conditions, which can be life altering and we’ve come to accept that that happens to many people as they age,” Gilbert said. “But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we did not have to accept neuronal loss as we age, we can age with our full faculties and walking well and ride off into the sunset without any of that?”

Ryan Duncan is a physical therapist and associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. He is conducting a study on lower back pain in patients with Parkinson’s.

“People with Parkinson’s are so generous with their time and with their willingness to participate in studies in order to advance the science,” Duncan said. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, if this doesn’t help me, I hope it helps someone in the future.’ And that is really, really, really heartening to hear that, even if it’s not going to help them but if they can help somebody down the road.”

Beth Elgort started the Mind, Music and Movement Foundation for Neurological Disorders (M3F) after her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

The foundation offers many movement classes, including dance, yoga, and boxing. Additionally, M3F provides nutritional counseling and support services.

M3F partnered with the Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute and Schmidt College of Medicine in January, according to Elgort, to offer their programming to the university and greater community. 

Currently, the foundation holds classes on Thursdays and Saturdays at the Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute, located on the university’s Jupiter campus.

“The most important piece to this program is what develops is friendship. People are not feeling isolated,” Elgort said. “They come to these classes and they stay with us for at least three hours a day. And they feel that they’re part of a community of caring, nurturing people, teachers, as well as our clients and they leave happy and are able to do things that they couldn’t do when they first came to us.”

Elgort states that M3F also encourages the caregiver or the spouse to attend so that they can feel like they’re involved. 

“It is a journey that involves not just the person living with the disease, but really involves the whole family. So education is very important for our foundation; educating the population.”

Mary Rasura is a Staff Writer for the University Press. For more information regarding this article or others, you can email her at [email protected] or send a DM @maryrasura.