The Ottawa Hospital has made great strides in addressing today’s most pressing challenges in neuroscience. We are internationally recognized for our groundbreaking research and treatment of many neurological diseases, such as stroke, neuromuscular illnesses, and Parkinson’s disease (PD).

In fact, we are one of very few centres in Canada where neurologists work hand-in-hand with basic scientists to tackle unsolved problems. Our goal is to foster new ideas and expand our range of clinical trials to quickly bring cutting-edge treatments directly to our patients. Some of the discoveries that lead to new interventions have been made here.

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s, affecting over 100,000 Canadians. The disease continues to mystify according to Dr. Michael Schlossmacher, a neurologist and the Bhargava Family Research Chair in Neurodegeneration at The Ottawa Hospital. This Chair is an example of one way philanthropists, like the Bhargava family, actively support the hospital.

“It was in 1961 when one of my teachers in Vienna first discovered the Lazarus-type effect of how dopamine therapy can suppress the symptoms of Parkinson’s. That was six decades ago, and we now understand more of the mechanisms underlying the motoric deficits, but we still don’t have a therapy in place to stop the illness in its tracks,” says Dr. Schlossmacher.

Thinking outside the box for Parkinson’s treatment

Dr. Michael Schlossmacher, The Ottawa Hospital

“If we want to treat Parkinson’s, slow it down or stop it, it will only happen through research that identifies better ways to separate subtypes of the illness and confirm targets to develop drugs for interventions.”

– Dr. Michael Schlossmacher

While progress is slow and often frustrating for patients, active research continues to probe for answers. “If we want to treat Parkinson’s, slow it down or stop it, it will only happen through research that identifies better ways to separate subtypes of the illness and confirm targets to develop drugs for interventions. Then, we’ll need to test them in the clinic and, upon demonstration of safety, apply them to a large body of patients in trials to gauge efficacy,” explains Dr. Schlossmacher. He is quick to point out that our Parkinson’s Research Consortium has made a name for itself in Canada and internationally, both on the clinical side and through basic research. Some of the clinical research activity is directed at improved integration of care delivery that we have already available today.

Philanthropy and grants play a pivotal role in moving research forward. For Dr. Schlossmacher and his team, it often allows them the opportunity to develop ideas that are largely out of the mainstream and represent ‘outside the box’ thinking. “Philanthropy has the potential to transform research activities by amplifying them and supporting talented trainees that can work on creative, new ideas.”

Does Parkinson’s start in the nose?

Over the years, research has shown more than 80% of people with Parkinson’s disease suffer from a reduced sense of smell — it often occurs years before the onset of typical movement-related symptoms. Understanding those early indicators could help in an early diagnosis for patients.

Recently, a US $9-million grant from the Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s (ASAP) initiative was announced to further explore this idea. The hope is to determine whether scent-processing nerves that connect the inside of the nose to the brain may play a role in the development of the disease. Dr. Schlossmacher is the overall leader of the effort.

Dr. Julianna Tomlinson, the scientific program manager for the international team and co-director of research in the Schlossmacher Lab at our hospital, explains the importance of this study. “For us, this is an incredible opportunity to align efforts around the world, because it brings together scientists previously anchored in the PD field with researchers who heretofore have been working outside the field of Parkinson’s.”

There are eight institutes in five countries collaborating on this global study. It’s a unique opportunity to get answers to questions that scientists here in Ottawa have been asking for quite some time, including what role environmental triggers (other than toxins) play in Parkinson’s disease as they interact with genetics. “Right now, the treatments for Parkinson’s help the symptoms but they do not stop the progression of the disease. If we can identify disease processes at an early stage, then hopefully we will be able to stop or at least slow its progression before it reaches those later stages,” says Dr. Tomlinson.

The Ottawa Hospital leads this international effort

There are five main areas that this interdisciplinary and multinational study is pursuing. Our hospital’s focus is on how the immune system relates to Parkinson’s. Specifically, laboratory models will determine how viruses and bacteria could lead to changes in the body that are linked to pathology that is seen in the diseased human brain. Understanding the function of genes that are linked to Parkinson’s and whether those genes could be functioning in the immune system, rather than just in the brain, will also be explored.

The support of our hospital is instrumental in being able to lead this international effort. “There are so many people who are involved in making this work. It’s a full team effort, including financial officers, publication experts, and colleagues with knowledge in technology transfer,” explains Dr. Tomlinson.

Ultimately, it’s about finding answers for our patients and their family members who are desperately waiting for a breakthrough. As Dr. Schlossmacher explains, that’s why the world will be watching these scientists. “From an innovation and creativity perspective, we are setting the stage as a team as to how complex research avenues could be brought together, where people work collaboratively and constructively. We don’t undermine each other; we really complement each other and enable each other.”

Making the patient connection

For nearly two decades, Kelly McDonald felt there was something physically wrong with her, but even an eventual diagnosis of fibromyalgia in her 30s didn’t provide her with the answers she needed. McDonald, a professional photographer with a sharp eye, always knew something was off. Her stance wasn’t great, she struggled with her posture, and she’d get tired easily. However, solving her health mystery was an ongoing challenge and source of frustration. “You know, people think you’re a hypochondriac,” says Kelly.

It wouldn’t be until 2021, at the age of 52, when Kelly was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In recent years, she started to develop tremors, her handwriting deteriorated, and she increasingly had a hard time getting her foot properly placed in her shoe. It was at that point, Kelly’s husband convinced her to see her doctor. Soon her right side became stiff and at times, she also felt numb. Kelly thought she was having a stroke.

“I consider myself a Parkinson’s warrior. I want to be a warrior. I want to bring more awareness to this disease, and I want people to be diagnosed earlier.”

– Kelly McDonald
Kelly McDonald
Knitting is a passion that Kelly won’t yet
give up.

When Kelly met with a neurologist at The Ottawa Hospital, tests revealed she had Parkinson’s — a diagnosis that she, surprisingly, welcomed. “I was just relieved, because I thought I was going to die from a stroke, like my dad did,” remembers Kelly.

Kelly’s father also had suffered from Parkinson’s. Moreover, soon after her diagnosis, she learned even more about her family history, namely that it also had affected the paternal side of her family. She is being cared for by Dr. David Grimes, the Head of the Division of Neurology at our hospital and an expert in movement disorders. It was Dr. Grimes who asked Kelly whether she would be interested in a study known as the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI).

Kelly admits that there were some dark days after her initial diagnosis. But in coming to terms with her new reality, she woke up one morning with a new view on her life. “I decided I have this, let’s do something good. I consider myself a Parkinson’s warrior. I want to be a warrior. I want to bring more awareness to this disease, and I want people to be diagnosed earlier,” explains Kelly.

“A lot of people start to tremor when they’re older, and some people think it’s a disease that only affects older people. But Michael J. Fox was diagnosed when he was 29.”

– Kelly McDonald

She enrolled in the PPMI study to help all those living with a Parkinson’s gene mutation, like her, that don’t realize they have it. It’s not until the shaking begins that the red flag goes up. “A lot of people start to tremor when they’re older and some people think it’s a disease that only affects older people. But Michael J. Fox was diagnosed when he was 29.”

What is PPMI?

PPMI is a landmark study led by The Michael J. Fox Foundation investigating better treatment options and prevention of the disease.

The Ottawa Hospital is one of nearly 50 sites across 12 countries participating in the expansion of the PPMI study. The team at our hospital is recruiting people recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, who are not yet taking medication to control symptoms, as well as people age 60 and older who do not have Parkinson’s but are living with certain risk factors. Those interested in enrolling at The Ottawa Hospital can find the detailed eligibility criteria and how to contact the study team here. The Ottawa Hospital was the first Canadian study site to recruit participants when the study started to include sites outside the US; the expansion phase of the study means there could be 4,000 participants across all sites by the end of 2023.  

“We are proud to be partnering with The Michael J. Fox Foundation and other PPMI site participants, and we are very grateful to the study’s dedicated volunteers who are helping us to move toward a future of disease prevention and better options for those living with Parkinson’s.” 

– Dr. Tiago Mestre

Dr. Tiago Mestre is the principal investigator at our hospital, and he explains initial discoveries from this global study have already had an impact. “Early findings have revolutionized the understanding of Parkinson’s biology and the design of clinical trials testing potential new treatments, but there is much more to uncover. We are proud to be partnering with The Michael J. Fox Foundation and other PPMI site participants, and we are very grateful to the study’s dedicated volunteers who are helping us to move toward a future of disease prevention and better options for those living with Parkinson’s.”  

Kelly joined the study mid-2021 and she’ll be monitored for 13 years. She says it’s been an amazing experience so far and she’d encourage others to consider joining. “Not only do you gain information about yourself and current information on your condition, but a study like this can help other people in the future. It also seems like Parkinson’s runs in my family. I could learn important information that could help my sister or my niece.” says Kelly.

For now, she’s looking ahead and doesn’t lose focus, whether it’s on her photography or as a warrior combatting Parkinson’s.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Michael Schlossmacher
Dr. Michael Schlossmacher in his lab at The Ottawa Hospital.

For more than 200 years, no one has been able to solve the Parkinson puzzle. Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s. It affects approximately 100,000 Canadians—8,000 here in Ottawa. The national number is expected to double by 2050. Each day, many of those patients face uncontrolled trembling in their hands and limbs, the inability to speak loudly, loss of sense of smell, and pains from stiffness.

While the exact cause of the disease remains a mystery, dedicated researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are gaining ground—determined to solve the puzzle. Ottawa is a recognized centre for neuroscience research. Dr. Michael Schlossmacher is the director of the Neuroscience program at The Ottawa Hospital and while he admits Parkinson’s is complicated and complex, there is hope.

“I strongly believe we can solve that riddle. We have the expertise to make a major contribution to a cure for this disease.” Dr. Michael Schlossmacher

Predicting the risk of Parkinson’s

For Schlossmacher, a step forward in unravelling the mystery of this disease came when he was struck by the idea of a mathematical equation, which could potentially foreshadow the disease before it develops. “I’m convinced that by entering known risk factors for Parkinson’s into this model, it is indeed possible to predict who will get the disease.”

Risk factors for Parkinson’s disease include:

  • age
  • chronic constipation
  • reduced sense of smell
  • family history
  • chronic inflammation such as hepatitis or types of inflammatory bowel disease,
  • environmental exposures
  • head injuries
  • gender, as Parkinson’s affect more men than women

Dr. Schlossmacher and his team of researchers are currently combing through data to test the accuracy of their theory to predict Parkinson’s.

Meet two of the Parkinson’s powerhouses dedicated to finding a cure

To date, Dr. Schlossmacher and his team have analyzed more than 1,000 people, and the results are promising. “The surprising thing so far is the prediction formula is right in 88 to 91 percent of the cases to tell us who has Parkinson’s and who doesn’t—and this is without even examining the movements of a patient.”

The goal is now to expand to field testing in the next two years. According to Dr. Schlossmacher, should the results show the mathematical equation works, this could allow doctors to identify patients who have high scores. “We could modify some of the risk factors, and potentially delay or avoid developing Parkinson’s altogether.”

Partners Investing in Parkinson’s Research

Team PIPR co-captain Karin Fuller, left, with Elaine Goetz and fellow co-captain, Kristy Shortall-Cain.

Research is costly and community support is vital to help unleash new discoveries. In 2009, a group of investment advisors came together to create Partners Investing in Parkinson’s Research, more commonly known as PIPR. Each year, the group participates in Run for a Reason and raises money as a part of Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. In 11 years, the group has raised $1.4 million for The Ottawa Hospital’s researchers and clinicians.

PIPR has not only helped to fund research toward better treatment and hopefully a cure for Parkinson’s, but the group has also brought much-needed attention to the disease. For Dr. Schlossmacher, funding for research from groups like PIPR, means more hope for the future. He is quick to add that PIPR has galvanized the momentum in our community because they see how committed The Ottawa Hospital is to making a difference.

“This investment by PIPR into research at The Ottawa Hospital has been a total game changer for us. It has allowed us to pursue projects that otherwise would not yet be funded.”

Donor dollars translate into results

Dr. Sachs practicing the use of 3D technology
Dr. Adam Sachs practicing the use of 3D technology for neurosurgery.

PIPR’s support helped bring deep brain stimulation surgery (DBS) to The Ottawa Hospital. For someone like Karin Fuller, co-captain of team PIPR, she knows the positive impact this type of technology can have. “When my dad had that surgery he had to go to Toronto, which meant going back and forth for the appointments. It was a lot for him and for our family. Helping to bring DBS to our community is a tangible example of what we’ve been able to do as a group to support The Ottawa Hospital,” says Karin.

Also developed at The Ottawa Hospital is the world’s first 3D virtual reality system for neurosurgery. It is being used to increase the accuracy of DBS surgery for patients with Parkinson’s. Our neurosurgeons are the first in the world to use this technology in this way and the goal is to improve the outcome for patients.

Promise for the future

It’s also expected that one day 3D technology could be in every department throughout the hospital. The possibilities for this technology are endless and, in the future, it could help countless patients, beyond Parkinson’s disease.

When Dr. Schlossmacher looks at the puzzle of Parkinson’s, which he’s been investigating for 20 years, he sees promise.

“At The Ottawa Hospital, we think outside the box and that’s how we’re able to unravel mysteries through our research. Research which we hope will one day be transformational.”   Dr. Michael Schlossmacher

He also has sheer determination in his eyes. “To the chagrin of my wife, I will not retire until I put a dent into it. The good news is, I may have 20 years left in the tank but, ultimately, I’d like to put myself out of business.”

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

A bystander only sees neurosurgeon Dr. Adam Sachs wearing large goggles, looking at the air between the two wands he moves back and forth in front of him. What Dr. Sachs sees is a three-dimensional image of a patient’s brain, with its electrical activity superimposed. This isn’t a video game. It’s the cutting-edge of deep brain stimulation and neurosurgery technology.

Wearing virtual reality goggles, Dr. Sachs can view an accurate, computer-generated 3D image of a patient’s brain with Parkinson’s disease, created using the patient’s own MRIs. The patients’ brain activity recorded from microelectrodes can be visualized in this virtual world. With the two wands, or joysticks, he can move the three-dimensional brain around, seeing it from all angles. He can also remove layers of the brain to look inside at the exact spot where he will place a DBS electrode during deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery. He is hoping to soon use this technology in the operating room.

Dr. Adam Sachs
Neurosurgeon Dr. Adam Sachs is planning to use 3D virtual reality in his deep brain surgery for patients with Parkinson’s.

This medical 3D virtual reality system was developed at The Ottawa Hospital, and is expected to be the first of its kind in the world to be used for deep brain stimulation surgery. Drs. Justin Sutherland and Daniel La Russa are clinical medical physicists in the hospital’s radiation oncology department. The two used their imaging expertise to develop a virtual reality system that combines a patient’s MRIs and CT scans to create a 3D image of a patient’s organ or body part to give surgeons a detailed, accurate representation of the surgical area.

Historically, medical virtual reality programs were used by patients mainly for rehabilitation. Patients would wear VR-goggles to help relearn how to move through and cope with different environments. Until recently, the technology wasn’t good enough to create images of organs or tissue that could be used by clinicians in a manner that improves on current practice.

“What we are trying to do in our virtual reality lab is come up with new ways to leverage technology to help doctors and nurses, or any medical professional, do what they do better.  And how better than with 3D visualization,” said Dr. Sutherland who is also an assistant professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of Radiology. “We think the technology has only reached that point now. We’re now at a place where we want to pursue the avenue of clinicians-as-users.”

“Nowhere else in the world are they using virtual reality in this fashion.”

— Dr. Adam Sachs

One Ottawa Hospital surgeon interested in using 3D virtual reality was Dr. Sachs, who performs deep brain stimulation surgery for people with Parkinson’s. During this procedure, a microelectrode, no wider than a human hair, is implanted into a very specific area of the brain. The microelectrode then records activity from and stimulates that part of the brain and alleviates some of the patient’s symptoms, such as tremors and akinesia or the loss of ability to move their muscles voluntarily. The virtual reality system allows the electrical activity, stimulation effects and the MRI to be visualized together.

“In deep brain stimulation surgery, because the target is very small and in the middle of the brain this leaves the surgeon with the problem of how to visualize the person’s brain to understand the area and where to put the electrode,” said Dr. Sachs.

Dr. Adam Sachs holding 3D virtual reality wands.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Adam Sachs uses virtual reality wands to manipulate a 3D image of the brain.

He said neurosurgeons use MRIs and brain atlases to get a mental image of what the patient’s brain looks like. The problem is these atlases are maps created from many different people’s brains, but each patient’s brain is unique. As well, the brain atlases are only two-dimensional, while the brain is three-dimensional. This makes it difficult to place the microelectrode in the exact spot in the patient’s brain where it will have the best chance of halting or reducing the Parkinson’s tremors.

Dr. Chadwick Boulay, a senior research associate in the neuroscience program, understands the challenges faced by neurosurgeons when implanting an electrode at the optimal position in the brain. When Dr. Boulay learned about the 3D virtual reality technology being developed at The Ottawa Hospital, he realized the potential this had for increasing the accuracy of deep brain stimulation surgery. He and Dr. Sachs worked with Drs. Sutherland and La Russa to develop a virtual reality program that would enable them to see the patient’s brain in three dimensions.

“This is really exciting,” said Dr. Sachs. “The deep brain stimulation electrodes will be more precisely placed because we’ll be able to integrate accurate images from the patient’s anatomy and visualize it in three dimensions,” said Dr. Sachs.

He anticipates that the resulting precision of the placement of the electrode will improve outcomes for patients with Parkinson’s disease, but this will be confirmed through research. About 15 people undergo deep brain stimulation surgery at The Ottawa Hospital every year.

“We’re excited about working with the Sachs Lab because it is a perfect clinical example of using 3D visualization to better understand a spatial problem,” said Dr. Sutherland. “In this case, actually seeing a target for deep brain stimulation removes the burden on the surgeons of trying to create a 3D model in their head.”

Drs. Daniel LaRussa, Justin Sutherland, and Chadwick Boulay
Drs. Daniel LaRussa, Justin Sutherland, and Chadwick Boulay have teamed up to design a 3D virtual reality program for Dr. Adam Sachs’ deep brain stimulation surgery.

Dr. Sutherland foresees that this 3D virtual reality technology will one day be in every department throughout the hospital. He says the overall system is surprisingly inexpensive, as the computer that runs it and the goggles only cost a few thousand dollars. The possibilities for this technology are endless. He said it has huge potential for education—teaching medical anatomy—and for surgical planning. Dr. Sutherland sees Dr. Sachs’ endorsement of this system as a shining example of how doctors can use this technology to improve what they do.

“Nowhere else in the world are they using virtual reality in this fashion,” said Dr. Sachs.

The Ottawa Hospital is quickly being positioned as leaders in 3D virtual reality technology and has already gained international attention. Drs. Sutherland and La Russa have given demonstrations and been invited to talk at large medical conferences, and other institutions have contacted them with interest in using this technology.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

Imagine not being able to control a trembling in your hands and limbs, the inability to speak loudly, losing your sense of smell, dealing with unexplained pains. Unfortunately, these are just a few of the symptoms affecting Parkinson’s disease patients every day.

More than 100,000 Canadians live with Parkinson’s, including 8,000 here in Ottawa. Parkinson’s is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that primarily affects voluntary, controlled movement. The exact cause of the disease is unknown. Discovered almost 200 years ago, there is still no cure or proven treatment available to slow its relentless progression. People can develop Parkinson’s disease at any time in their life.

“Our society will be faced with many more patients with Parkinson’s over the decades to come. In many ways Parkinson’s is complicated and also complex. I strongly believe that although it’s complex and complicated, we can solve that riddle. We have the expertise in Canada to make a major contribution to a cure for this disease.”

– Dr. Michael Schlossmacher, Senior Scientist, The Ottawa Hospital Canada Research Chair in Parkinson Disease and Translational Neuroscience
PIPR logo in red on white background

Partners Investing in Parkinson Research (PIPR)

In 2009, a group of investment advisors from the Ottawa financial community formed Partners Investing in Parkinson Research (PIPR). The group set an original goal of raising $500,000 in support of research to better understand and diagnose Parkinson’s. Since then, PIPR has expanded to include many individuals and families affected by Parkinson’s who are committed to supporting research, and has raised over $1.7 million.

Chaired by Andrew Frank of RBC Dominion Securities, PIPR members reach out to the community at large to raise vital funds to support leading edge Parkinson Research at The Ottawa Hospital.

PIPR has provided important base funding to the scientists, allowing them to leverage further grants. The advancements have been impressive. PIPR has not only helped to fund research for the treatment and cure of Parkinson’s disease, it has galvanized the community to support the cause that previously received little attention. Above all, the PIPR team has given hope to those who live with this unremitting disease.

“Parkinson’s Disease had already been part of our lives for over 20 years, so how could we not get involved? Raising funds for research was the obvious action, but fundraising at first seemed daunting. We soon learned that our family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues all wanted to help – they just needed to be asked. But our group has become more than fundraising – we have become an extended family, supporting each other as we faced many of the same challenges dealing with this disease as well as sharing all of the same fears and hopes.”

– Bobbie Driscoll, PIPR co-founder

PIPR is always open to new members and encourages anyone interested to join!

Learn more about PIPR and hear about some of the exciting research advancements on  Episode 34 of Pulse, featuring Dr. Julianna Tomlinson and Kim Teron.

Parkinson Research at The Ottawa Hospital

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa came together in 2004 to form the Parkinson Research Consortium under the leadership of Dr. David Grimes and Dr. Michael Schlossmacher. The consortium brings together clinicians and scientists from various disciplines to improve our understanding of Parkinson’s disease, conduct novel and innovative research, and develop new treatment options, with the ultimate goal of developing a cure.

April 2022 Parkinson Research Update – Read more (PDF)

Recent Milestones

  • Developments in understanding how genes contribute to onset and progression of the disease.
  • Development of innovative therapeutic strategies including targeted gene therapy.
  • Development of an experimental spinal fluid test to improved diagnosis.
  • Discovery of a new genetic mutation that makes some people more susceptible to this disease.
  • Development of a new mouse model that mimics a familial form of early on-set Parkinson’s disease.
  • Publication of Canada’s first Parkinson’s care guidelines.

Support Parkinson Research

Support ongoing research efforts by making a donation, or by calling 613-761-4295. For more information about the research or how to join the team, contact Graham Thompson, Manager, Philanthropy, at 613-798-5555, ext. 19818, or