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Biology professor studies leeches for clues to Parkinson's

By Mara Kumagai Fink '11
September 21, 2009

When St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Biology Kevin Crisp looks at leeches, he sees a key to unlocking the mysteries of Parkinson’s disease.

When most people think of leeches, they envision blood-sucking creatures that attack during summer swims or are found among similarly slimy creatures in bait shops. But when St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Biology Kevin Crisp looks at leeches, he sees a key to unlocking the mysteries of Parkinson’s disease.

Crisp recently received a $45,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how dopamine affects the neurons in leech cells that trigger movement. In simpler terms, he’s researching how a leech decides to move. 

Although a simple leech brain may seem far removed from the complex human brain, the basic principles by which both leeches and humans make decisions is very similar. Figuring out how dopamine makes neural circuits turn out the appropriate movement at the appropriate time in a leech could help in human research as well.

Although it is nearly impossible to find out which neurons trigger certain actions in humans who are making a straightforward decision such as what to eat for dinner, leeches have a simpler development that makes it easier to pinpoint which cells do what.

Crisp at work in his Regents Hall laboratory.

Crisp hopes that the information he’s gathering in the study will someday be transferrable to Parkinson’s patients. Parkinson’s disease occurs because there is a decreased amount of dopamine in the brain. General practice for treating Parkinson’s is to increase the amount of dopamine in a person’s brain. But nobody is sure how the dopamine actually works at the neuron level.

“The doctors who are administering the management are sort of cheating. We’re sort of shooting in the dark here,” Crisp says. “We know you throw dopamine at a system in sufficient quantities and the disease becomes manageable; we just don’t know how or why, so we’re trying to figure that ‘why’ bit out.”

For this research Crisp also is working with a lab at the University of Minnesota and one at the University of California at San Diego.  He also worked with student Brian Gallagher ’09 in the summer of 2008 on a similar project. 

Although the research is still in its early stages and is far from ready to transfer to humans, Crisp hopes that it can shed some light on the reasons for the successful use of dopamine on Parkinson’s patients. “It’s possible that we’ll raise some insights into ways to improve the technology. We might at least finally be able to explain something that we’ve observed for 50 years,” he says.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or