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Published: 22 Sep, 2021

Wants to get closer to a solution to Parkinson’s disease

PROFILE The cause behind Parkinson’s disease is still mostly unknown. Some of the brain’s dopamine-producing cells die, but other systems are affected too, researchers have seen. Sara af Bjerkén is determined to figure out what role noradrenaline has in this context.

Text: Inger Nilsson

Sara af Bjerkén is resident physician of neurology at the University Hospital of Umeå and assistant professor of histology focusing on cell biology at the Department of Integrative Medical Biology at Umeå University.

“Noradrenaline has been in my focus for years now. Previously, Parkinson’s has been seen as merely a disease of dopamine-deficiency and motor problems, but in later years, other so-called non-motor symptoms have been discovered,” explains Sara af Bjerkén.

“Those are, for instance, depression and fatigue with an underlying deficiency in other signal substances such as noradrenaline and serotonin. These symptoms can sometimes be even more limiting than the physical symptoms for patients. I want to know where the disease starts and what mechanisms are triggered.”

Parkinson’s disease affects the motor functions and causes alterations in movement patterns – with slow movements, stiffness and shaking as a result. The disease is progressive and leads to a gradual loss of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter crucial for the functioning of the body’s voluntary movements. 1–2 per cent of the population get Parkinson’s disease.

There are theories that the disease starts elsewhere

“The underlying cause of Parkinson’s disease is still unknown,” says Sara af Bjerkén. “In some cases, defect genes are known culprits, but in most cases, we simply don’t know what causes the disease. There are theories, however, that the disease starts elsewhere.”

Divides her time between research and clinical practice

Sara af Bjerkén is active both clinically with patients and in the lab conducting research. She divides her time equally between the two.

Working with patients helps her to reflect on what other areas could cause the disease.

“Patients that have been diagnosed have often said, when asked, that they have had long-term pains in their stomach, for instance. And the sense of smell has often been affected for 10–15 years before motor issues are noticeable.”

Non-motor symptoms can partly be linked to damages on the noradrenaline-producing nerve cells. Thanks to her clinical work and her Parkinson’s disease research, Sara af Bjerkén can now go in-depth in her mission.

Specialising in neurology

“I train to be a specialist in the area, a neurologist, and nurture a dream of combining clinical work with research. I like that combination.”

She meets patients at the neurology clinic.

“I work at the neurology clinic where I meet patients and get to see the symptoms. In my research, I try to spot more symptoms to identify patient groups with noradrenaline deficit.”

Noradrenaline seems to reduce neuroinflammation

In a published study, Sara af Bjerkén and her team of researchers have presented that damages to the noradrenaline system leads to a slow breakdown of dopamine-producing nerve cells. They could also detect that the lack of a well-functioning noradrenaline system leads to increased levels of inflammation in the brain.

“There are elements of inflammatory cells. I don’t know why, but noradrenaline seems to reduce neuroinflammation.”

Studying brains with noradrenaline deficit

In their work, Sara af Bjerkén and her colleagues use data from patients with Parkinson’s disease in Västerbotten, but also from an animal model.

“Thanks to the animal model, I can study the processes in a brain with noradrenaline deficit on cellular level.

Long-term stay in Umeå

Sara af Bjerkén comes from Västerås but has lived in Umeå for quite some time now.

“Before I studied medicine, I took the Biomedicine Programme. When I had completed my doctoral studies in 2008, I still hadn’t finished the Medical Programme. I wanted to finish that and then had the opportunity to take on a combined researcher and intern physician position. I also wanted to finish my clinical work, so that made me stay in Umeå.”

“I’ve lived in Umeå for 20 years now. Umeå University offers a good environment with strong neuroscience research.”

“And to top that, I found my husband in a student dorm.”

But research means a lot to her too, not least when it comes to getting closer to a solution to Parkinson’s disease.

“If one can identify underlying mechanisms, one can then tackle the problem. Because there is yet no cure.”

Short facts

Sara af Bjerkén is resident physician of neurology at the University Hospital of Umeå and assistant professor of histology focusing on cell biology at the Department of Integrative Medical Biology at Umeå University. She leads a group of researchers who are mapping neurodegenerative processes focusing on Parkinson’s disease.

Beside a medical degree, Sara af Bjerkén also has a Master's degree in biomedicine. She completed her doctoral studies in 2008 and has since combined her role as a medical doctor with lab and clinical research.

More about Sara af Bjerkén

Name: Sara af Bjerkén
Family: Spouse Patrik and two children, Olle 6 years and Astrid 3.5 years
Comes from: Västerås
Lives: Umeå
Motivates me at work: Meeting people with Parkinson’s, and the knowledge that what I do can make a difference
Inspires me: Other research fellows, meeting them at conferences – and the research community in general – as well as the patients themselves.
Best way to relax: Hanging out with the family – preferably in our holiday home on the west coast of Sweden, or Saturday mornings when you have no plans and can have breakfast in peace with the family, and running.