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November 12, 2010

Preventing Parkinson's

Parkinson's disease appears linked to problems in the brain's energy stores. New research suggests a fix.

Parkinson’s disease, which affects five million people around the world, presents a particular mystery since its cause is still so unclear. A new study suggests that problems with the brain’s energy stores may be linked to the development of the disease even years before symptoms occur. Knowing this may, in the future, help researchers develop more effective tools for diagnosing the disease early on.

If there are problems in the ways in which energy is utilized, this could present a significant problem for the brain which wolfs down energy faster than any other organ. Earlier studies have also presented clues that mitochondria may be linked to Parkinson’s disease, and the current research backs up the connection.

The current study looked at data from over 300 samples of brain tissue, focusing on an area called the substantia nigra. This area of the brain, which produces the neurotransmitter (or brain chemical) dopamine, is the one most affected in Parkinson’s disease. The brain samples used in the study came from people who had suffered from either full-blown Parkinson’s disease or whose brains showed early signs of the disease but who were symptom-free. Tissue samples from healthy individuals served as control.

The researchers found that 10 sets of genes were less active in the brains of Parkinson’s patients — even in the brains of people who did not show symptoms — compared to controls. These genes were all linked to the brain’s energy makers, little structures called mitochondria. These structures help process the energy from glucose, the brain’s sole source of fuel.

To see if they could adjust the genes and prevent the damage, the researchers conducted a second experiment using rat brains. When the researchers "turned on" a master gene, PCG-1α, known to be in charge of the other 10 sets, they found that Parkinson’s damage was prevented.

If there are problems in the ways in which energy is utilized, this could present a significant problem for the brain which wolfs down energy faster than any other organ. Earlier studies have also presented clues that mitochondria may be linked to Parkinson’s disease, and the current research backs up the connection. More research will clearly be needed to understand the relationship. Still, the researchers are encouraged that that new study will lead to better — and earlier — methods for diagnosing the disease, perhaps even before symptoms occur.

The study was carried out by researchers at Harvard University, and published in the October 6, 2010 issue of Science Translational Medicine.
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