Research lecture to examine risk factors of Parkinson's, restless legs syndrome

March 31, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Xiang Gao, professor of nutritional sciences and director of the Nutritional Epidemiology Lab at Penn State, will present the 2021 Pattishall Research Lecture.

The lecture, "Parkinson’s and Restless Legs Syndrome: Risk Factors and Consequences," will be presented at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 21, via Zoom webinar. All are welcome to attend.

Parkinson’s disease is one of the most common degenerative diseases of the brain, and it is often accompanied by shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) causes the overwhelming urge to move one’s legs and can be very uncomfortable. RLS typically occurs when people are resting and is considered a sleep disorder. 

Xiang Gao seated with his hands on a table

Xiang Gao

IMAGE: Penn State

“People take Parkinson’s disease very seriously,” Gao said. “RLS, however, is poorly understood. Some people doubt that it is a significant problem at all, but it is a very real condition.”

Both Parkinson’s disease and RLS relate to dopamine levels in the brain. This connection provided a pathway for Gao and his collaborators to examine different risk factors for these seemingly unrelated conditions.

“We examined data from around 500,000 people who were followed for over a decade to understand risk and protective factors for both Parkinson’s and RLS,” Gao explained. “Diets high in certain foods, including berries, peppers and coffee, could reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease. Ibuprofen is another promising protective agent. Some risk factors, like family history and specific gene mutations, cannot be controlled, but they can help people be more aware of their own risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.”

Gao also will discuss his pigmentation hypothesis, a new explanation of the potential origin of Parkinson’s disease. Gao’s work indicates that pigmentation levels, as suggested by hair color and MC1R gene, may be a key factor in the development of the disease. ln a large-scale study of 130,000 participants conducted by Gao and his colleagues, lighter hair color was associated with higher risk of Parkinson’s disease and redheads appeared to have the highest risk. 

“Additionally, we wanted to understand whether people with RLS have increased risk of other diseases,” said Gao. “We found that individuals with RLS, particularly those with severe symptoms, had a higher risk of major chronic diseases, including erectile dysfunction, Parkinson’s disease, hypertension, coronary heart disease, and suicidality. We also found that obesity and physical inactivity are associated with a higher future risk of RLS. RLS could be of clinical and public health significance, and its unfavorable effects on health could be alleviated by modifying one’s lifestyle.”

Gao researches nutritional epidemiology and neurological diseases/mental disorders. His scholarship has resulted in 270+ publications and several grants funded by the National Institutes of Health. He has received many research awards including the Wayne A. Hening Sleep Medicine Investigator Award from the American Academy of Neurology (2011), the Leadership/Expertise Alumni Award from the Tufts Nutrition School (2012), and the Samuel Fomon Young Physician Investigator Award from American Society for Nutrition (2015).

The Pattishall Research Lecture is delivered each year by the most recent recipient of the Pattishall Outstanding Research Achievement Award, which honors a senior Penn State faculty member who has made outstanding research contributions to the field across a major portion of his or her career. The award was established by the late Evan Pattishall, who served as dean of the former College of Human Development, and his wife, Helen.

Last Updated April 01, 2021