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July 23, 2002


Emory Researchers Test the Effects of Valerian Root on Sleep Disturbances in Parkinson's Patients

Can the root of an "herbal compound" help improve sleep disturbances in patients suffering with Parkinson's disease (PD)? Emory researchers are taking a close look at this form of alternative medicine through a multi-million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The herbal compound being studied on Parkinson's patients at Emory is valerian root, a root used widely in Eastern Europe, Germany and Russia for difficulties in sleeping and reduction of anxiety. Previous studies have shown that valerian root has sleep promoting and calming effects. But researchers have never studied the effects of valerian root when taken by Parkinson's patients.

"This is the first trial of its kind," says Donald Bliwise, Ph.D., professor of neurology and a sleep and aging expert at Emory University School of Medicine. "Eighty to ninety percent of Parkinson's patients have disturbed sleep. We believe these disturbances evolve because the same systems in the brain that control motor functions overlap with areas that control the state of sleep."

Disturbed sleep in Parkinson's patients is described as difficulty falling asleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, excessive movement during sleep, acting out dreams and experiencing hallucinations.

Disturbed sleep is one of many symptoms of Parkinson's disease, a progressive disorder of the central nervous system affecting over one million people in the United States. Other symptoms include tremor, stiffness, slow movement and balance difficulty. Emory researchers are focusing on the sleep disturbance aspect in this trial, hoping that better sleep at night will lead to improved motor function when participants wake up in the morning.

Participants in this study will be randomly selected to receive valerian root pills or placebos. Neither researchers nor participants will know who is taking which pill, making this a double-blind trial. Participants will take two pills one hour before bedtime for 16 consecutive nights. They will also be asked to spend three nights at the start of the trial and two nights at the end of the trial for observation in the Laboratory for Sleep, Aging and Chronobiology at Wesley Woods Geriatric Center at Emory University. Following the end of the 17-day study period (no medication will be given on the first night in the sleep lab), all subjects will receive a seven-day supply of valerian root to try during an open-label phase. Participants will be asked to keep a sleep diary throughout the 17 days of the trial and through the seven-day open-label phase.

The trial is one of three studies in the Emory University Center for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in Neurodegenerative Diseases. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the NIH awarded Emory a five-year grant for the Center and three individual research grants totaling $5.7 million.

"The NCCAM focuses on application of traditional research designs to non-traditional treatments," says Dr. Bliwise, who is also the lead investigator of the valerian root and PD study at Emory. "The idea is to test these possible treatments in rigorous academic environments, such as Emory. Emory is well-known for its research in Parkinson's disease, so this trial and the creation of the CAM Center at Emory allow us to really build on our strengths."

Two other Emory researchers are helping to oversee this study. David Rye, M.D., Ph.D., and Michael Decker, Ph.D., serve as co-principal investigators.

Recruitment for the study is underway. Participants must have Parkinson's disease, must be 45 to 75 years old, have disturbed sleep, must be stable on their medications and cannot have had previous Parkinson's surgery. Participants also must be willing to spend five nights in the sleep lab during the trial. For more information on the study, please contact Emory Health Connection at (404) 778-7777.

Participants are also being recruited for two other studies in Emory's CAM Center. The studies involve the use of Chinese mind-body exercises to improve the motor and non-motor disabilities in patients with Parkinson's disease and the use of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to relieve depression associated with Parkinson's disease.

Editor's Note:

Emory's CAM Center in Neurodegenerative Diseases is not an information or referral center. For more information on the CAM Center, call Rebecca Portman, administrator for Emory's CAM Center in Neurodegenerative Diseases, at (404) 727-3251. The Center offers postdoctoral fellowships, as well as funding for pilot/feasibility studies, for those interested in CAM in neurodegenerative disease.

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