Penn State part of $7.9 million project to study restless legs syndrome

September 23, 2004

University Park, Pa. -- A multi-institution research team including three Penn State scientists recently was awarded a $7.9 million grant from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health to study the causes of and effectiveness of iron therapies to treat restless legs syndrome (RLS).

The announcement today (Sept. 23) marks international Restless Legs Syndrome Awareness Day, which falls on the birthdate of RLS discoverer Karl Ekbom, a Swedish neurologist who first described the syndrome in the 1940s. The awareness day is meant to recognize RLS, an affliction that causes irresistible urges to move the legs and often is accompanied by creepy-crawly sensations in the legs. The sensations are relieved only by movement and become worse as the sun goes down, causing night after night of sleeplessness for the millions of people with RLS and their partners.

"This grant will make it possible for us to learn more about this syndrome and to begin to explore treatment options that may bring relief to sufferers," said James Connor, professor and vice chair for neurosurgery, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, and co-investigator on the grant. "Together, this research team will be able to focus the varied expertise of its members to investigate causes of RLS while at the same time determining the effects of FDA-approved pharmaceuticals and iron therapies not indicated for, but used to help, those with RLS."

Although it's been long-suspected that iron deficiency has something to do with RLS, in a previous study Connor and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University found that a specific receptor for iron transport is lacking in patients with RLS. When that mechanism malfunctions, enough iron gets to the brain to keep the cells alive, but not enough so that they function optimally. That missing iron may cause a misfiring to the legs, creating the creepy-crawly feelings. Connor's work established a physical cause for the disorder and characterized it as a sensory motor disorder, rather than a psychological disorder.

The NIH grant, directed by principal investigator Christopher J. Earley of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, will fund four separate projects. Connor's project will focus on further pinpointing the causes of RLS by obtaining a profile of the brains of RLS sufferers. Like his previous study, this study will make use of tissue from the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation's Harvard Brain Bank. This work will enable the team to more effectively develop and direct treatment strategies.

John Beard, professor of nutritional sciences, and Byron Jones, professor of biobehavioral health and pharmacology, Penn State, will explore how differences in the amount of iron in the brain relate to the functioning of the dopaminergic system, which is responsible for sending central nervous system signals to the body for controlling movement.

Earley will lead two projects; one will focus on abnormalities in the central nervous system of people with RLS, and a second that will focus on the use of and effectiveness of intravenous iron supplementation as a potential long-term treatment for RLS.

In addition, four core facilities -- two at Johns Hopkins and two at Penn State University Park -- will provide administrative, statistical, study recruitment, sample analysis and animal research support functions for the projects.

In addition to Connor, Beard, Jones and Earley, the study team includes: Richard Allen, Dean Wong, Suzanne Lesage, Peter Barker, Alena Horska, Jeff Bulte, Charles Rohde and Juan Troncoso, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

For an appointment with an RLS specialist at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, call 717-531-1441 or 800-292-3332. For information about RLS visit the RLS Foundation's Web site at

To participate in a clinical study on RLS, visit The Johns Hopkins Center for Restless Legs Syndrome Web site at

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009