Parkinson’s disease is among the most common neurodegenerative diseases worldwide. The National Institutes of Health shows nearly half a million people in the United States have this condition. Around 50,000 cases are also diagnosed each year.
Precisely, it is a movement disorder that affects the nervous system. Some other examples of movement disorders are Tourette syndrome, cerebral palsy, and ataxia. None of these are as common as Parkinson’s disease.
The main issue with Parkinson’s disease is that it progresses very slowly. A person having it may not realize at the earlier stages. The early symptoms of the condition include a feeling of tightness of stiffness in the body and mild tremor.
Both of these are also everyday health issues. A person that these are the effects of not getting enough rest or a certain movement and ignore them. The more visible and severe symptoms of Parkinson’s disease show up gradually as time passes.
In the majority of the people, the signs start to appear after crossing the age of 60. Some 5-10% of the cases, the symptoms may begin as earlier on. This is known as “early onset” to Parkinson’s disease.
One of the main characteristics of this disease is the buildup of alpha-synuclein – a type of protein – in the brain. A new study published in the journal Molecular Cell suggests another connection which was not focused on before – the link of fatty acids and the build-up of alpha-synuclein in Parkinson’s disease.
Read the full study here.
What Causes Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease is not only hard to diagnose early on but the exact cause of it is currently unknown. What the researchers do know is that it starts when the nerve cells in the brain are damaged due to a number of factors. Eventually, the cells die and the symptoms begin to worsen.
Some of the factors which can trigger the destruction of nerve cells in the brain are:
Low norepinephrine levels
Norepinephrine is one of the neurotransmitters in the brain. It is responsible for controlling many of the important functions in the body such as the circulation of blood. Like other neurotransmitters, these are produced by nerve endings.
When a person develops Parkison’s disease, these nerve endings die. This is the reason that Parkinson’s disease patients face other health issues in addition to mobility.
For example, a person with the disease may face orthostatic hypotension – changes in blood pressure while doing simple movements like standing up-, fatigue, and constipation.
Low dopamine levels
In consonance with the researchers, falling of dopamine levels in the brain and the development of Parkison’s disease are directly linked. Such a situation arises when the cells are responsible for producing dopamine start getting destroyed.
The essential function of dopamine is to send messages to the specific part in the brain the controls bodily movements and coordination. A low level of dopamine means a person may face difficulty in mobility.
If the level of dopamine keeps falling, the affected person eventually finds it hard to perform even the simplest of movements.
Lewy body dementia
Lewy body dementia is different from Parkinson’s disease in many ways. However, both of the conditions are linked to each other. A person who has Parkinson’s disease may have Lewy bodies in his/her brain which are essentially just clumps of protein.
Many studies have shown that health conditions often have links with each other. Parkinson’s disease is no exception. According to a report published in JAMA health journal in 2017, there may be a potential connection between Parkinson’s disease and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Furthermore, a team of researchers investigating in Taiwan in 2018 found that people with autoimmune rheumatoid arthritis had a 1.37 percent higher chance of having Parkinson’s disease.
People who have a family history of having Parkinson’s disease may have a higher chance of developing it themselves. Though it is not always passed down, researchers are trying to identify the specific genes which cause the condition.
There is also a theory that suggests that the genetic disposition may be triggered by environmental factors. Such factors include exposure to toxins like solvent metals, pesticide, and other harmful chemicals.
What Are the Early Signs of Parkinson’s Disease?
It is important to recognize the signs of Parkinson’s disease on time. A big number of people assume that the symptoms are just a part of aging. Therefore, they do not get medical attention on time.
The treatment of Parkinson’s disease is more successful if it starts in the early stages of the disease. For this reason, an early diagnosis is better than a late diagnosis which may also cause further complications.
Some of the early symptoms of the disease are:
- Difficulty in coordination
- Changes in handwriting
- Problems in changing facial expressions
- Loss of sense of smell
- Change in postures or gait
- Tremor in the voice
- Problems in sleep
- Difficulty in chewing and swallowing
What Did the New Study Show?
The researchers included in the study looked at several models of fatty acids and lipids. Ranging from human cells to yeast lipids, they checked how can they affect the alpha-synuclein proteins.
The team conducted a process called unbiased lipidomic profiling. In this procedure, the changes in fatty acids and lipids are noted. In this case, the researchers looked at both while they were in the engineered yeast.
The researchers initially found an increase in neutral lipids pathway, called oleic acid. The same reactions were seen in both lab rodents and human neuronal models. This also includes the cells lines that were taken from Parkinson’s disease patients.
From this observation, it was clear that oleic acid was a mediator of alpha-synuclein or the toxic buildup in the brain that causes Parkinson’s disease.
What Are the Future Prospects?
Since the researchers were able to diagnose a connection between oleic acid and alpha-synuclein buildup during Parkinson’s disease, they went further to look for a way to stop it.
The team further looked at the main producer of oleic acid – an enzyme known as stearoyl-CoA-desaturase (SCD). Not only does this enzyme play a big role in the production of oleic acid but also many other types of fatty acids.
The researchers believe that blocking this enzyme can potentially help stop the process of neurodegeneration. Some known and used stearoyl-CoA-desaturase blockers are known by the researchers. However, currently, none of them have passed the trial for clinical use.
The senior author of the study Dennis Selkoe notes that this is indeed a big achievement. The discovery of the link between oleic acid and alpha-synuclein and the proposed treatment option may pave the way for future treatment.
The author says:
The identification of SCD as an enzyme which contributes to [alpha]-synuclein-mediated lipid changes and neurotoxicity presents a unique opportunity for small-molecule therapies to inhibit the enzyme in models of [Parkinson’s disease] and, ultimately, in human diseases”
Other researchers on the team also noted that further research on the topic may even lead to testing potential inhibitors in clinical trials. Consequently, a new therapeutic treatment for Parkinson’s disease may be developed in the future.