When the zombies are all in your head

In your brain there are different types of cells.

Firstly there are the neurons (the prima donnas that we believe do most of the communication of information). Next there are the microglia cells, which act as the first and main line of active immune defence in the brain. There are also oligodendrocyte, that wrap protective sheets around the branches of the neurons and help them to pass signals.

And then there are astrocytes.

These are the ‘helper cells’ which maintain a comfortable environment for the neurons and aid them in their task. Recently, researchers in California reported an curious observation in the Parkinsonian brain: some astrocytes have entered an altered ‘zombie’-like state. And this might not be such a good thing.

In today’s post, we’ll review the research and discuss what it could mean – if independently replicated – for the Parkinson’s community.


Zombies. Source: wallpapersbrowse

I don’t understand the current fascination with zombies.

There are books, movies, television shows, video games. All dealing with the popular idea of dead bodies wandering the Earth terrifying people. But why the fascination? Why does this idea have such appeal to a wide portion of the populous?

I just don’t get it.

Even more of a mystery, however, is where the modern idea of the ‘zombie’ actually came from originally.

You see, no one really knows.

Huh? What do you mean?

Some people believe that the word ‘zombie’ is derived from West African languages – ndzumbi means ‘corpse’ in the Mitsogo language of Gabon, and nzambi means the ‘spirit of a dead person’ in the Kongo language. But how did a word from the African continent become embedded in our psyche?

Others associate the idea of a zombie with Haitian slaves in the 1700s who believed that dying would let them return back to lan guinée (African Guinea) in a kind of afterlife. But apparently that freedom did not apply to situations of suicide. Rather, those who took their own life would be condemned to walk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity as an undead slave. Perhaps this was the starting point for the ‘zombie’.

More recently the word ‘zonbi’ (not a typo) appeared in the Louisiana Creole and the Haitian Creole and represented a person who is killed and was then brought to life without speech or free will.

Delightful stuff for the start of a post on Parkinson’s research, huh?

But we’re going somewhere with this.

Continue reading “When the zombies are all in your head”

James: His legacy (Part 4)

On Tuesday 21st December, 1824, James Parkinson passed away in his home – two days after suffering a stroke.

It was the end of an amazing and extremely productive life.

In this post about James Parkinson – the final in the series of four observing the 200th anniversary of his first observation of Parkinson’s disease – we look at what happened following his death, and reflect on his overall legacy.


St Leonard’s church in Hoxton, London – James’ church

At the end of the third post on the life of James Parkinson (Click here to read that post), the Battle of Waterloo had just occurred and James was publishing the last of his writings.

One of the last major events in the life of James Parkinson occurred in 1823, when James was awarded the Royal College of Surgeons’ first Gold Medal.

Understand that this was a big deal.

The college had established the award way back in 1802 for “distinguished labours, researches and discoveries”. But it took them a full 21 years to find anyone that they thought worthy enough to be the first recipient.

And that first recipient: one James Parkinson

This event, however, represents very nicely how the legacy of James has changed over time. While the world currently associates James Parkinson with a neurological condition that he first described in 1817, the Royal College of Surgeons awarded him their first gold medal not for any of his medical publications, but rather for his “splendid Work on Organic Remains”.

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Source: Lindahall

As I have written before, James was a bit of a rockstar to the geological/palaeontology community. His writings on what he called his “favourite science”, had earned him an international reputation and one has to wonder how he would feel now if he knew that his reputation lies elsewhere.

As JP aficionado Dr Cherry Lewis once wrote: history is fickle.

Continue reading “James: His legacy (Part 4)”

PAQ-ing more punch for Parkinson’s

Punch

In the 1990, scientists identified some fruits that they suspected could give people Parkinson’s. 

These fruit are bad, they reported.

More recently, researchers have identified chemicals in that exist in those same fruits that could potential be used to treat Parkinson’s. 

These fruit are good, they announce.

In today’s post, we will explain why you should avoid eating certain members of the Annonaceae plant family and we will also look at the stream of research those plants have given rise to which could provide a novel therapy for Parkinson’s.


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Guadeloupe. Source: Bluefoottravel

In the late 1990s, researchers noticed something really odd in the French West Indies.

It had a very strange distribution of Parkinsonisms.

What are Parkinsonisms?

‘Parkinsonisms’ refer to a group of neurological conditions that cause movement features similar to those observed in Parkinson’s disease, such as tremors, slow movement and stiffness. The name ‘Parkinsonisms’ is often used as an umbrella term that covers Parkinson’s disease and all of the other ‘Parkinsonisms’.

Parkinsonisms are generally divided into three groups:

  1. Classical idiopathic Parkinson’s disease (the spontaneous form of the condition)
  2. Atypical Parkinson’s (such as multiple system atrophy (MSA) and Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP))
  3. Secondary Parkinson’s (which can be brought on by mini strokes (aka Vascular Parkinson’s), drugs, head trauma, etc)

Source: Parkinsonspt

Some forms of Parkinsonisms that at associated with genetic risk factors, such as juvenile onset Parkinson’s, are considered atypical. But as our understanding of the genetics risk factors increases, we may find that an increasing number of idiopathic Parkinson’s cases have an underlying genetic component (especially where there is a long family history of the condition) which could alter the structure of our list of Parkinsonisms.

So what was happening in the French West Indies?

Continue reading “PAQ-ing more punch for Parkinson’s”

The anti-depressing research of antidepressants

Antidepressants are an important class of drugs in modern medicine, providing people with relief from the crippling effects of depression.

Recently, research has suggested that some of these drugs may also provide benefits to people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. But by saying this we are not talking about the depression that can sometimes be associated with this condition.

This new research suggests anti-depressants are actual providing neuroprotective benefits.

In today’s post we will discuss depression and its treatment, outline the recent research, and look at whether antidepressants could be useful for people with Parkinson’s disease.


Source: NatureWorldNews

It is estimated that 30 to 40% of people with Parkinson’s disease will suffer from some form of depression during the course of the condition, with 17% demonstrating major depression and 22% having minor depression (Click here to read more on this).

This is a very important issue for the Parkinson’s community.

Depression in Parkinson’s disease is associated with a variety of poor outcomes not only for the individuals, but also for their families/carers. These outcomes can include greater disability, less ability to care for oneself, faster disease progression, reduced cognitive performance, reduced adherence to treatment, worsening quality of life, and increased mortality. All of which causes higher levels of caregiver distress for those supporting the affected individual (Click here to read more about the impact of depression in early Parkinson’s).

What is depression?

Wikipedia defines depression as a “state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, behaviour, feelings, and sense of well-being” (Source). It is a common mental state that causes people to experience loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration.

Importantly, depression can vary significantly in severity, from simply causing a sense of melancholy to confining people to their beds.

Source: Prevention

What causes depression?

Continue reading “The anti-depressing research of antidepressants”

“Three hellos” for Parkinson’s

Trehalose is a small molecule – nutritionally equivalent to glucose – that helps to prevent protein from aggregating (that is, clustering together in a bad way).

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition that is characterised by protein aggregating, or clustering together in a bad way.

Is anyone else thinking what I’m thinking?

In today’s post we will look at what trelahose is, review some of the research has been done in the context of Parkinson’s disease, and discuss how we should be thinking about assessing this molecule clinically.


Neuropathologists examining a section of brain tissue. Source: Imperial

When a neuropathologist makes an examination of the brain of a person who passed away with Parkinson’s, there are two characteristic hallmarks that they will be looking for in order to provide a definitively postmortem diagnosis of the condition:

1.  The loss of dopamine producing neurons in a region of the brain called the substantia nigra.

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The dark pigmented dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra are reduced in the Parkinson’s disease brain (right). Source:Memorangapp

2.  The clustering (or ‘aggregation’) of a protein called alpha synuclein. Specifically, they will be looking for dense circular aggregates of the protein within cells, which are referred to as Lewy bodies.

A Lewy body inside of a neuron. Source: Neuropathology-web

Alpha-synuclein is actually a very common protein in the brain – it makes up about 1% of the material in neurons (and understand that there are thousands of different proteins in a cell, thus 1% is a huge portion). For some reason, however, in Parkinson’s disease this protein starts to aggregate and ultimately forms into Lewy bodies:

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A cartoon of a neuron, with the Lewy body indicated within the cell body. Source: Alzheimer’s news

In addition to Lewy bodies, the neuropathologist may also see alpha synuclein clustering in other parts of affected cells. For example, aggregated alpha synuclein can be seen in the branches of cells (these clusterings are called ‘Lewy neurites‘ – see the image below where alpha synuclein has been stained brown on a section of brain from a person with Parkinson’s disease.

Lewy_neurites_alpha_synuclein

Examples of Lewy neurites (indicated by arrows). Source: Wikimedia

Given these two distinctive features of the Parkinsonian brain (the loss of dopamine neurons and the aggregation of alpha synuclein), a great deal of research has focused on A.) neuroprotective agents to protect the remaining dopamine-producing neurons in the substantia nigra, and B.) compounds that stop the aggregation of alpha synuclein.

In today’s post, we will look at the research that has been conducted on one particular compounds that appears to stop the aggregation of alpha synuclein.

It is call Trehalose (pronounces ‘tray-hellos’).

Continue reading ““Three hellos” for Parkinson’s”

Are we getting NURR to the end of Parkinson’s disease?

Nuclear receptor related 1 protein (or NURR1) is a protein that is critical to the development and survival of dopamine neurons – the cells in the brain that are affected in Parkinson’s disease.

Given the importance of this protein for the survival of these cells, a lot of research has been conducted on finding activators of NURR1.

In today’s post we will look at this research, discuss the results, and consider issues with regards to using these activators in Parkinson’s disease.


Comet Hale–Bopp. Source: Physics.smu.edu

Back in 1997, 10 days after Comet Hale–Bopp passed perihelion (April 1, 1997 – no joke; perihelion being the the point in the orbit of a comet when it is nearest to the sun) and just two days before golfer Tiger Woods won his first Masters Tournament, some researchers in Stockholm (Sweden) published the results of a study that would have a major impact on our understanding of how to keep dopamine neurons alive.

Dopamine neurons are one group of cells in the brain that are severely affected by Parkinson’s disease. By the time a person begins to exhibit the movement symptoms of the condition, they will have lost 40-60% of the dopamine neurons in a region called the substantia nigra. In the image below, there are two sections of brain – cut on a horizontal plane through the midbrain at the level of the substantia nigra – one displaying a normal compliment of dopamine neurons and the other from a person who passed away with Parkinson’s demonstrating a reduction in this cell population.

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The dark pigmented dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra are reduced in the Parkinson’s disease brain (right). Source:Memorangapp

The researchers in Sweden had made an amazing discovery – they had identified a single gene that was critical to the survival of dopamine neurons. When they artificially mutated the section of DNA where this gene lives – an action which resulted in no protein for this gene being produced – they generated genetically engineered mice with no dopamine neurons:

Title: Dopamine neuron agenesis in Nurr1-deficient mice
Authors: Zetterström RH, Solomin L, Jansson L, Hoffer BJ, Olson L, Perlmann T.
Journal: Science. 1997 Apr 11;276(5310):248-50.
PMID: 9092472

The researchers who conducted this study found that the mice with no NURR1 protein exhibited very little movement and did not survive long after birth. And this result was very quickly replicated by other research groups (Click here and here to see examples)

So what was this amazing gene called?

Continue reading “Are we getting NURR to the end of Parkinson’s disease?”

Trying to ‘beet’ Parkinson’s in the developing world

Recently I discussed my ‘Plan B’ idea, which involves providing a cheap alternative to expensive drugs for folks living in the developing world with Parkinson’s (Click here for that post).

While doing some research for that particular post, I came across another really interesting bit of science that is being funded by Parkinson’s UK.

It involves Beetroot.

In today’s post we will look at how scientists are attempting turn this red root vegetable into a white root vegetable in an effort to solve Parkinson’s in the developing world.


Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Source: NationalGeo

During visits to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii (in Italy), tourists are often drawn by their innocent curiosity to the ‘red light’ district of the city. And while they are there, they are usually amused by the ‘descriptive’ murals that still line the walls of the buildings in that quarter.

So amused in fact that they often miss the beetroots.

Huh? Beetroots?

Yes, beetroots.

I’m not suggesting that anyone spends a great deal of time making a close inspection of the walls, but if you look very carefully, you will often see renditions of beetroots.

They are everywhere. For example:

Two beetroots hanging from the ceiling.

Again: Huh?

The Romans considered beetroot to be quite the aphrodisiac, believing that the juice ‘promoted amorous feelings’. They also ate the red roots for medicinal purposes, consuming it as a laxative or to cure fever.

And this medicinal angle lets me segway nicely into the actual topic of today’s post. You see, in the modern era researcher are hoping to use beetroot for medicinal purposes again. But this time, the beetroot will be used to solve an issue close to my heart: treating people with Parkinson’s in the developing world.

Using beetroot to treat Parkinson’s?

Continue reading “Trying to ‘beet’ Parkinson’s in the developing world”

A clever new Trk for Rasagiline

The protein Alpha Synuclein has long been considered the bad-boy of Parkinson’s disease research. Possibly one of the main villains in the whole scheme of things. 

New research suggests that it may be interfering with a neuroprotective pathway, leaving the affected cell more vulnerable to stress/toxins. But that same research has highlighted a novel beneficial feature of an old class of drugs: MAO-B inhibitors.

In today’s post we will outline the new research, discuss the results, and look at whether this new Trk warrants a re-think of MAO-B inhibitors.


The great Harry Houdini. Source: Wikipedia

I’m not sure about you, but I enjoy a good magic trick.

That exhilarating moment when you are left wondering just one thing: How do they do that?

(Seriously, at 4:40 a baguette comes out of thin air – how did he do that?)

Widely believed to have been one of the greatest magicians of all time (Source), Harry Houdini is still to this day revered among those who practise the ‘dark arts’.

Born Erik Weisz in Budapest (in 1874), Houdini arrived in the US in 1878. Fascinated with magic, in 1894, he launched his career as a professional magician and drew attention for his daring feats of escape. He renamed himself “Harry Houdini” – the first name being derived from his childhood nickname, “Ehrie,” and the last name paying homage to the great French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. In 1899, Houdini’s act caught the eye of Martin Beck, an entertainment manager, and from there the rest is history. Constantly upping the ante, his feats became bolder and more death defying.

And the crowds loved him.

From stage, he moved on to film – ultimately starting his own production company, Houdini Picture Corporation. In addition, he was a passionate debunker of psychics and mediums, his training in magic helping him to expose frauds (which turned him against his former friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed deeply in spiritualism).

This is all very interesting, but what does any of it have to do with Parkinson’s?

Continue reading “A clever new Trk for Rasagiline”

Plan B: Itchy velvet beans – Mucuna pruriens

Mucuna-Pruriens-Mood-and-Hormone-Velvet-Bean

The motor features of Parkinson’s disease can be managed with treatments that replace the chemical dopamine in the brain. 

While there are many medically approved dopamine replacement drugs available for people affected by Parkinson’s disease, there also are more natural sources.

In today’s post we will look at the science and discuss the research supporting one of the most potent natural source for dopamine replacement treatment: Mucuna pruriens


Plan.B-oneway

Source: Yourtimeladies

When asked by colleagues and friends what is my ‘plan B’ (that is, if the career in academia does not play out – which is highly probable I might add – Click here to read more about the disastrous state of biomedical research careers), I answer that I have often considered throwing it all in and setting up a not-for-profit, non-governmental organisation to grow plantations of a tropical legume in strategic places around the world, which would provide the third-world with a cheap source of levodopa – the main treatment in the fight against Parkinson’s disease.

Mucuna_pruriens_08

Plan B: A legume plantation. Source: Tropicalforages

The response to my answer is generally one of silent wonder – that is: me silently wondering if they think I’m crazy, and them silently wondering what on earth I’m talking about.

As romantic as the concept sounds, there is an element of truth to my Plan B idea.

I have read many news stories and journal articles about the lack of treatment options for those people with Parkinson’s disease living in the developing world.

South-Africa-hospital

Hospital facilities in the rural Africa. Source: ParkinsonsLife

Some of the research articles on this topic provide a terribly stark image of the contrast between people suffering from Parkinson’s disease in the developing world versus the modernised world. A fantastic example of this research is the work being done by the dedicated researchers at the Parkinson Institute in Milan (Italy), who have been conducting the “Parkinson’s disease in Africa collaboration project”.

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The researchers at the Parkinson Institute in Milan. Source: Parkinson Institute 

The project is an assessment of the socio-demographic, epidemiological, clinical features and genetic causes of Parkinson’s disease in people attending the neurology out-patients clinic of the Korle Bu Teaching and Comboni hospitals. Their work has resulted in several really interesting research reports, such as this one:

Ghana
Title: The modern pre-levodopa era of Parkinson’s disease: insights into motor complications from sub-Saharan Africa.
Authors: Cilia R, Akpalu A, Sarfo FS, Cham M, Amboni M, Cereda E, Fabbri M, Adjei P, Akassi J, Bonetti A, Pezzoli G.
Journal: Brain. 2014 Oct;137(Pt 10):2731-42.
PMID: 25034897          (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

In this study, the researchers collected data in Ghana between December 2008 and November 2012, and each subject was followed-up for at least 6 months after the initiation of Levodopa therapy. In total, 91 Ghanaians were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (58 males, average age at onset 60 ± 11 years), and they were compared to 2282 Italian people with Parkinson’s disease who were recruited during the same period. In long-term follow up, 32 Ghanaians with Parkinson’s disease were assessed (with an average follow period of 2.6 years).

There are some interesting details in the results of the study, such as:

  • Although Levodopa therapy was generally delayed – due to availability and affordability – in Ghana (average disease duration before Levodopa treatment was 4.2 years in Ghana versus just 2.4 years in Italy), the actual disease duration – as determined by the occurrence of motor fluctuations and the onset of dyskinesias – was similar in the two populations.

Ghana2

Source: PMC

  • The motor fluctuations were similar in the two populations, with a slightly lower risk of dyskinesias in Ghanaians.
  • Levodopa daily doses were higher in Italians, but this difference was no longer significant after adjusting for body weight.
  • Ghanaian Parkinson’s sufferers who developed dyskinesias were younger at onset than those who did not.

Reading these sorts of research reports, I am often left baffled by the modern business world’s approach to medicine. I am also left wondering how an individual’s experience of Parkinson’s disease in some of these developing nations would be improved if a cheap alternative to the dopamine replacement therapies was available.

Are any cheap alternatives available?

Continue reading “Plan B: Itchy velvet beans – Mucuna pruriens”

O’mice an’ men – gang aft agley

This week a group of scientists have published an article which indicates differences between mice and human beings, calling into question the use of these mice in Parkinson’s disease research.

The results could explain way mice do not get Parkinson’s disease, and they may also partly explain why humans do.

In today’s post we will outline the new research, discuss the results, and look at whether Levodopa treatment may (or may not) be a problem.


The humble lab mouse. Source: PBS

Much of our understanding of modern biology is derived from the “lower organisms”.

From yeast to snails (there is a post coming shortly on a snail model of Parkinson’s disease – I kid you not) and from flies to mice, a great deal of what we know about basic biology comes from experimentation on these creatures. So much in fact that many of our current ideas about neurodegenerative diseases result from modelling those conditions in these creatures.

Now say what you like about the ethics and morality of this approach, these organisms have been useful until now. And I say ‘until now’ because an interesting research report was released this week which may call into question much of the knowledge we have from the modelling of Parkinson’s disease is these creatures.

You see, here’s the thing: Flies don’t naturally develop Parkinson’s disease.

Nor do mice. Or snails.

Or yeast for that matter.

So we are forcing a very un-natural state upon the biology of these creatures and then studying the response/effect. Which could be giving us strange results that don’t necessarily apply to human beings. And this may explain our long history of failed clinical trials.

We work with the best tools we have, but it those tools are flawed…

What did the new research report find?

This is the study:


Title: Dopamine oxidation mediates mitochondrial and lysosomal dysfunction in Parkinson’s disease
Authors: Burbulla LF, Song P, Mazzulli JR, Zampese E, Wong YC, Jeon S, Santos DP, Blanz J, Obermaier CD, Strojny C, Savas JN, Kiskinis E, Zhuang X, Krüger R, Surmeier DJ, Krainc D
Journal: Science, 07 Sept 2017 – Early online publication
PMID: 28882997

The researchers who conducted this study began by growing dopamine neurons – a type of cell badly affected by Parkinson’s disease – from induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells.

What are induced pluripotent stem cells?

Continue reading “O’mice an’ men – gang aft agley”