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What research is being done on dystonias?
The ultimate goals of research are to find the cause(s) of the dystonias so that they can be prevented, and to find ways to cure or more effectively treat people now affected. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a unit of the Federal Government's National Institutes of Health (NIH), is the agency with primary responsibility for brain and neuromuscular research. NINDS sponsors research on dystonia both in its facilities at the NIH and through grants to medical centers throughout the country. Scientists at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), also part of the NIH, are studying improved treatments for speech and voice disorders associated with dystonias. The National Eye Institute (NEI) supports work on the study of blepharospasm and related problems (see above) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) supports work on dystonia, including the rehabilitation aspects of the disorder.
Scientists at the NINDS laboratories have conducted detailed investigations of the pattern of muscle activity in persons with focal dystonias. One of the most important characteristics is the failure of reciprocal inhibition, a normal process in which muscles with opposite actions work without opposing each other. In dystonia, the tightening of muscles is associated with an abnormal pattern of muscles fighting each other. Other studies at the NINDS have probed the spinal reflex function and found abnormalities consistent with the defect in reciprocal inhibition. Other studies using EEG analysis and neuroimaging are probing brain activity and its relation to these observations.
The search for the gene or genes responsible for some forms of dominantly inherited dystonias continues. In 1989 a team of researchers mapped a gene for early-onset torsion dystonia to chromosome 9; the gene was subsequently named DYT1. In 1997 the team sequenced the DYT1 gene and found that it codes for a previously unknown protein now called "torsin A." The discovery of the DYT1 gene and the torsin A protein provides the opportunity for prenatal testing, allows doctors to make a specific diagnosis in some cases of dystonia, and permits the investigation of molecular and cellular mechanisms that lead to disease.
The gene for Segawa's dystonia has been found. It codes for an enzyme important in the brain's manufacture of dopamine.