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New Developments in Parkinson's Disease Research

Updated on December 8, 2013
Cross section of the human brain showing the location of the substantia nigra region.
Cross section of the human brain showing the location of the substantia nigra region. | Source

Nature of Parkinson's Disease

Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that facilitate the transmission of signals from one nerve cell to another. Parkinson's disease (PD) is a progressive disorder that involves the death of nerve cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine plays an important role in the regulation of muscle movement in the body, and the dopamine-producing cells are concentrated in a region of the brain called the substantia nigra. Symptoms of Parkinson's disease first arise when approximately 70 percent of the dopamine-producing cells are dead or damaged. These symptoms include hand tremors, impaired ability to move, muscle rigidity, difficulty with balancing, poor posture and impaired ability to blink and to swing your arms while walking.

The brown stain indicates a Lewy body inside a nerve cell in a region of the brain called the Substantia nigra.
The brown stain indicates a Lewy body inside a nerve cell in a region of the brain called the Substantia nigra. | Source

Causes of Parkinson's

According to the Mayo Clinic, genetic and environmental factors have some role in bringing about Parkinson's disease. Indeed, scientists have identified certain genetic variations that increase the risk of getting the disease. However, research on PD in recent years has focused on a collection of protein compounds that forms clumps inside nerve cells in the brain. These clumps, called Lewy bodies, get their name from the German scientist who first observed them back in 1912. Scientists now believe that these clumps may be part of the cause of Parkinson's disease. In a paper published in the October 20, 2008 issue of the "Chinese Journal of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology," researchers identified 20 proteins that are contained in Lewy bodies. One of these proteins is referred to as alpha-synuclein, and it has a very rigid, abnormal structure. Current research directed at finding a cure for PD has begun to target the effects of alpha-synuclein on nerve cells in the brain.

By introducing the abnormal protein alpha-synuclein into the brains of laboratory mice, scientists have finally succeeded in developing an animal model for Parkinson's disease.
By introducing the abnormal protein alpha-synuclein into the brains of laboratory mice, scientists have finally succeeded in developing an animal model for Parkinson's disease. | Source

Finally, A Mouse Model for Parkinson's

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have come up with a mouse model for Parkinson's that may be useful in the quest to find a cure for this debilitating and life-altering disease. In humans, the course of PD involves two crucial events: first, the formation of Lewy bodies in dopamine-producing nerve cells in the brain and second, the progressive death of these nerve cells which results in PD symptoms. An article in the November 16, 2012 issue of "The Philadelphia Inquirer" describes how the Penn team was able to incorporate these two features into laboratory mice. Their successful efforts mark the first development of a true animal model for PD.

The Penn researchers introduced a small amount of alpha-synuclein into a specific area of the brains of the mice. Over time, this abnormal protein appeared in nerve cells in contiguous areas, and one of these areas was the substantia nigra. The formation of Lewy bodies followed, and after about six months, half of the dopamine-producing nerve cells had died. The mice now showed the same type of impaired muscle control seen in humans with PD. The scientists believe that the abnormal protein was able to spread to other areas of the brain because it transfers its rigid structure to normal proteins by physical contact. The once flexible, normal proteins now become abnormal, and can proceed to "infect" normal proteins in other regions of the brain. The researchers speculate that a cure for PD may involve the formulation of a customized antibody that prevents alpha-synuclein from travelling through the brain.




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Disclaimer

This hub has been written for the sole purpose of providing information to the reader. It is not intended to be a source of any kind of medical advice or instruction, and it should not be used in the diagnosis of any illness, disease or condition. You should consult your doctor if you have questions about a specific medical problem.

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