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Robots to Help Pioneer Heriot-Watt Parkinson’s Research

Ross Kelly

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Heriot-Watt Robots

The study will combine neuroscience expertise with robotics, machine learning and computational brain modelling.

Academics from Heriot-Watt University are set to explore and test new therapies for Parkinson’s Disease on robots as part of a groundbreaking new study.

Over the next year, researchers from the Edinburgh-based university will collaborate with colleagues from the International Institute of Neuroscience in Brazil to lead the Neurobiotics Model of Parkinson’s disease study.

Currently, scientists use rats in experiments in order to develop new treatments, however, data already recorded from other animals in Brazil and robots in the UK will be used instead – which long-term could replace the need for animal testing.

Tackling Parkinson’s

Despite numerous attempts, there is still no cure for Parkinson’s disease, and therapies often rely heavily on incomplete animal models of the disease. The regions of the brain linked to Parkinson’s are also highly complex, which continues to inhibit research and understanding of the illness.

According to NHS data, around one in 500 people are affected by Parkinson’s disease, with more than 120,000 people in the UK currently living with the illness.

Over the next 15 years, the number of people with the illness is expected to double. It currently affects more than 3% of people over the age of 65.

The joint study between the two institutions will combine neuroscience expertise with robotics, machine learning and computational brain modelling.

As part of the collaboration, robotics expertise will be transferred from Heriot-Watt’s Robotics Lab to the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience in Brazil.

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Dr Patricia A. Vargas, Founding Director of the Robotics Laboratory at Heriot-Watt, underlined the importance of the research in regards to both the new therapies that could be produced and the reduction of animals involved in the testing process.

“This is a fantastic research project for our team to be working on,” she commented. “Not only will we possibly see new therapies for a life-debilitating illness, but it will also reduce the need to use animals for research.”

“This piece of research will be beneficial to millions of people across the world,” Vargas explained. “We will help develop new knowledge and therapies whilst reducing the need to use animals in this research altogether.”

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Dr Vargas added that the project “clearly demonstrates” the positive effect robots can have on medical research, helping to improve knowledge of the disease “beyond what is obtained through the use of anatomical and physiological studies alone.”

Annie Macleod, Scotland Director at Parkinson’s UK said the study represents a positive step to reducing the use of animals and developing innovative new therapies for the illness.

“As a charity, Parkinson’s UK subscribes to the “3 Rs” policy — to reduce, refine and replace the use of animals in research wherever possible. We warmly welcome this study and the potential it holds for reducing or replacing the use of animals in future,” she said.

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Funding for the project is being provided by the Newton Fund, led by the Royal Society, under the Newton Advanced Fellowship scheme.

Overseas Fellow, Dr Renan Moioli, commented: “The project will bring together scientists from UK and Brazil in an effort to further understand Parkinson’s disease. The opportunity to work closely with one of UK’s top robotics group will strengthen our cooperation and advance our research groups.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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