The unsung Israeli hero of Parkinson’s treatments

Next week, Hagai Berman of Hebrew University will get an overdue thank you for his breakthrough technique

Professor Hagai Berman   (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Professor Hagai Berman (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Over 100,000 people around the world who suffer from Parkinson’s disease have been treated with deep brain stimulation techniques, which studies have shown to be among the most effective treatments for the ailment. One of the silent crusaders in DBS research is Professor Hagai Berman of Hebrew University, whose breakthrough studies have proved that the technique could allay Parkinson’s symptoms in many patients.

Now, thanks to the Rappaport Family Foundation, Professor Bergman will receive the recognition he is due. Next week, he will be one of two Israeli researchers awarded the Rappaport Prize for Excellence in Biomedical Research.

One of the most debilitating scourges of old age, Parkinson’s is estimated to affect as many as 10 million people around the world. In the US alone, direct and indirect costs of the disease — treatment, social security payments, and lost productivity and more — are estimated at about $25 billion a year. Patients suffering from Parkinson’s often lose control of their primary and secondary motor skills, suffer from vision, bladder, and sleep issues, and eventually lose their memories and slip into dementia.

Although scientists aren’t sure about the causes of Parkinson’s, several treatments have proven to be effective, the most effective considered to be the drug levodopa. However, patients taking the drug — especially younger ones — often suffer from dyskinesias, a condition which often entails diminished motor control, with symptoms ranging from tics to disabling movement fluctuations. For many patients, the debilitating effects of levodopa‐induced dyskinesias (LID) cancel out its benefits.

In 1990, Professor Bergman conducted a major study that showed DBS to be an effective treatment against one way scientists believe Parkinson’s is contracted. In 1983, a neurotoxin called MPTP was accidentally found to cause a rapid onset of Parkinson’s, giving scientists one of their first windows into figuring out how to treat the disease. The study by Bergman and several colleagues showed that manipulation of a section of the brain called the subthalamic nucleus could help alleviate many of the symptoms of MPTP-induced Parkinson’s. Further studies showed that the treatment was effective in patients who suffered from regular Parkinson’s, without the side effects of LID.

While not offering a cure, DBS, as the treatment based on Bergman’s work came to be called, can help patients live a more normal life. DBS, which involves psychiatric and neurological treatment based on electric stimulation, is today one of the main treatment methods for the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other motor disorders connected to Parkinson’s such as tremors, muscle stiffness and movement difficulties.

From 1993 to today more than 100,000 DBS procedures have been carried out around the world. DBS was approved by the FDA as a treatment for Parkinson’s in 2002. In Israel, the procedure entered the health basket in 2004. So far over 400 DBS procedures have been carried out in Israel, with Prof. Bergman participating in 300 of them.

For over 20 years, Bergman has been leading physiological studies of the basal ganglia, which play a central role in a number of neurological conditions, and mainly in motor disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and dystonia. His studies and discoveries have been crucial for the development of treatments for Parkinson’s disease patients; DBS is the pillar of treatments for Parkinson’s patients with advanced symptoms, dramatically improving the functioning and quality of life of thousands of patients around the world, said the Rappaport Family Foundation – and as such he is well-deserving of the accolade he will receive at the awards ceremony in Tel Aviv on March 13.

“The winners of the Rappaport Prize for Excellence in Biomedical Research have reached very impressive scientific achievements,” said Prof. Amir Lerman of Mayo Clinic, chairman of the prize committee. “The pioneering studies of the two winners brought with them innovative ideas and discoveries, each in his own field, while contributing to the quality of life of many, to fighting diseases, to extending lives and relieving the pain of patients.”

The Rappaport Prize for Excellence in Biomedical Research is given at the same time as the Rappaport Prize for Art, which is granted by the Rappaport Family Foundation in cooperation with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Rappaport Prize for the Change Generating Woman in cooperation with La’Isha Magazine.

The Rappaport Prize for Excellence in Biomedical Research was first granted in 2010. In 2012 the prize was granted to Prof. David Wallach for his contribution in the study of drugs for chronic inflammatory diseases and Prof. Noam Sobel for his contribution to research in the field of the olfactory brain systems.

The Rappaport Family Institute for Research in the Medical Sciences was established in 1982 tto promote excellence in biomedical research within the Ruth and Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine of the Technion. The Institute supports outstanding researchers from the Faculty of Medicine with research funding, laboratory space and access to advanced equipment. Professor Karl Skorecki is the Director of the Rappaport Institute, as well as Director of Medical & Research Development, Rambam Health Campus.

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