Researchers have identified processes within the brain that may allow them to diagnose Parkinson’s disease at an early stage, develop treatments, and prevent its spread.
They hope they will eventually be able to determine whether young people are susceptible to the disease before they display symptoms and focus on slowing its progress.
“Currently, most of the treatments are intended to prevent the exacerbation of the disease rather than to prevent it,” said Dr. Shani Stern, senior lecturer at the University of Haifa’s Sagol Department of Neurobiology.
“If we can identify the potential to develop Parkinson’s disease at an early stage and develop treatments that can halt the advancement of the disease, we will be able to start preventative treatment at a stage when the nerve cell mortality is limited.
“This will allow us to significantly slow down the progression of the disease.”
For the first time, researchers were able to prove that the way cells connect to the network of proteins in the brain was impaired in Parkinson’s patients who did not develop the disease due to genetic factors – which affects 85 per cent of all patients that suffer from the disease.
They took cells from specific individuals, reprogrammed them into stem cells, and then differentiated them as cells of a different type carrying the same genetic load of the individual from whom they were taken. They took skin samples from nine patients suffering from both variants of Parkinson’s disease.
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The skin cells were converted to stem cells, and then to dopaminergic neurons, brain cells that synthesize dopamine, which is required to perform motor actions properly. Parkinson’s patients suffer from massive loss of nerve cells in the area of the brain that is packed with dopaminergic neurons.
These neurons carried the genetic load of each patient and were “sick” with the same type of Parkinson’s disease as that participant. The researchers found damage to the extracellular matrix in patients with both types of the disease, as well as a decline in the synaptic activity responsible for the transmission of neural messages.
“The dopaminergic neurons we examined were derived from patients through the reprogramming which rejuvenates them into young cells,” said Dr. Stern.
“In other words, we can see changes in the electric activity, genes, and proteins of the extracellular matrix even when the cells are young.
“This implies that these changes exist in Parkinson’s patients long before they are aware of a disease process that is occurring in their brain. If we perform this sequencing in a young person and find a similar picture to that found among people who have developed Parkinson’s disease, we can assume that this individual will develop the disease at a later stage.