Tagged: Lewy bodies

The next killer APP: LRRK2 inhibitors?

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In Silicon valley (California), everyone is always looking for the “next killer app” – the piece of software (or application) that is going to change the world. The revolutionary next step that will solve all of our problems.

The title of today’s post is a play on the words ‘killer app’, but the ‘app’ part doesn’t refer to the word application. Rather it relates to the Alzheimer’s disease-related protein Amyloid Precursor Protein (or APP). Recently new research has been published suggesting that APP is interacting with a Parkinson’s disease-related protein called Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or LRRK2).

The outcome of that interaction can have negative consequences though.

In today’s post we will discuss what is known about both proteins, what the new research suggests and what it could mean for Parkinson’s disease.


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Seattle. Source: Thousandwonders

In the mid 1980’s James Leverenz and Mark Sumi of the University of Washington School of Medicine (Seattle) made a curious observation.

After noting the high number of people with Alzheimer’s disease that often displayed some of the clinical features of Parkinson’s disease, they decided to examined the postmortem brains of 40 people who had passed away with pathologically confirmed Alzheimer’s disease – that is, an analysis of their brains confirmed that they had Alzheimer’s.

What the two researchers found shocked them:

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Title: Parkinson’s disease in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Authors: Leverenz J, Sumi SM.
Journal: Arch Neurol. 1986 Jul;43(7):662-4.
PMID: 3729742

Of the 40 Alzheimer’s disease brains that they looked at nearly half of them (18 cases) had either dopamine cell loss or Lewy bodies – the characteristic features of Parkinsonian brain – in a region called the substantia nigra (where the dopamine neurons are located). They next went back and reviewed the clinical records of these cases and found that rigidity, with or without tremor, had been reported in 13 of those patients. According to their analysis 11 of those patients had the pathologic changes that warranted a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

And the most surprising aspect of this research report: Almost all of the follow up studies, conducted by independent investigators found exactly the same thing!

It is now generally agreed by neuropathologists (the folks who analyse sections of brain for a living) that 20% to 50% of cases of Alzheimer’s disease have the characteristic round, cellular inclusions that we call Lewy bodies which are typically associated with Parkinson disease. In fact, in one analysis of 145 Alzheimer’s brains, 88 (that is 60%!) had chemically verified Lewy bodies (Click here to read more about that study).

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A lewy body (brown with a black arrow) inside a cell. Source: Cure Dementia

Oh, and if you are wondering whether this is just a one way street, the answer is “No sir, this phenomenon works both ways”: the features of the Alzheimer’s brain (such as the clustering of a protein called beta-amyloid) are also found in many cases of pathologically confirmed Parkinson’s disease (Click here and here to read more about this).

So what are you saying? Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are the same thing???

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The Llama-nation of Parkinson’s disease

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The clustering of a protein called alpha synuclein is one of the cardinal features of the brain of a person with Parkinson’s disease.

Recently published research has demonstrated that tiny antibodies (called nanobodies) derived from llamas (yes, llamas) are very effective at reducing this clustering of alpha synuclein in cell culture models of Parkinson’s disease. 

In today’s post, we will discuss the science, review the research and consider what it could all mean for Parkinson’s disease.


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Llama. Source: Imagesanimals

Ok, I confess: This post has been partly written purely because I really like llamas. And I’m not ashamed to admit it either.

I mean, look at them! They are fantastic:

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Source: Vogue

Very cute. But what does this have to do with Parkinson’s disease?

Indeed. Let’s get down to business.

This post has also been written because llamas have a very interesting biological characteristic that is now being exploited in many areas of medical research, including for Parkinson’s disease.

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The other anniversary: 20 years of Alpha Synuclein

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On the 27th June, 1997, a research report was published in the prestigious scientific journal ‘Science’ that would change the world of Parkinson’s disease research forever.

And I am not exaggerating here.

The discovery that genetic variations in a gene called alpha synuclein could increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease opened up whole new areas of research and eventually led to ongoing clinical trials of potential therapeutic applications.

Todays post recounts the events surrounding the discovery, what has happened since, and we will discuss where things are heading in the future.


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Source: listchallenge

It is fair to say that 1997 was an eventful year.

In world events, President Bill Clinton was entering his second term, Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State for the USA, Tony Blair became the prime minister of the UK, and Great Britain handed back Hong Kong to China.

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#42 – Bill Clinton. Source: Wikipedia

In the world of entertainment, author J. K. Rowling’s debut novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was published by Bloomsbury, and Teletubbies, South Park, Ally McBeal, and Cold Feet (it’s a British thing) all appeared on TV for the first time, amusing and entertaining the various age groups associated with them.

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South Park. Source: Hollywoodreporter

Musically, rock band Blur released their popular hit song ‘Song 2‘ (released 7th April), “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by the Verve entered the UK charts at number 2 in June, and rapper Notorious B.I.G. was killed in a drive by shooting. Oh, and let’s not forget that “Tubthumping” (also known as “I Get Knocked Down”) by Chumbawamba was driving everybody nuts for its ubiquitous presence.

And at the cinemas, no one seemed to care about anything except a silly movie called Titanic.

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Titanic. Source: Hotspot

Feeling old yet?

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A connection between ALS & Parkinson’s disease? Oh’ll, SOD it!

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Please excuse our use of UK slang in the title of this post, but a group of Australian researchers have recently discovered something really interesting about Parkinson’s disease.

And being a patriotic kiwi, it takes something REALLY interesting for me to even acknowledge that other South Pacific nation. This new finding, however, could be big.

In today’s post, we will review new research dealing with a protein called SOD1, and discuss what it could mean for the Parkinson’s community.


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The number of dark pigmented dopamine cells in the substantia nigra are reduced in the Parkinson’s disease brain (right). Source: Adaptd from Memorangapp

Every Parkinson’s-associated website and every Parkinson’s disease researchers will tell you exactly the same thing when describing the two cardinal features in the brain of a person who died with Parkinson’s disease:

  1. The loss of certain types of cells (such as the dopamine producing cells of the substantia nigra region of the brain – see the image above)
  2. The clustering (or aggregation) of a protein called Alpha synuclein in tightly packed, circular deposits, called Lewy bodies (see image below).

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A Lewy body inside a cell. Source: Adapted from Neuropathology-web

The clustered alpha synuclein protein, however, is not limited to just the Lewy bodies. In the affected areas of the brain, aggregated alpha synuclein can be seen in the branches of cells – see the image below where alpha synuclein has been stained brown on a section of brain from a person with Parkinson’s disease.

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

Now, one of the problems with our understanding of Parkinson’s disease is disparity between the widespread presence of clustered alpha synuclein and very selective pattern of cell loss. Alpha synuclein aggregation can be seen distributed widely around the affected areas of the brain, but the cell loss will be limited to specific populations of cells.

If the disease is killing a particular population of cells, why is alpha synuclein clustering so wide spread?

So why is there a difference?

We don’t know.

It could be that the cells that die have a lower threshold for alpha synuclein toxicity (we discussed this is a previous post – click here?).

But this question regarding the difference between these two features has left many researchers wondering if there may be some other protein or agent that is actually killing off the cells and then disappearing quickly, leaving poor old alpha synuclein looking rather guilty.

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Poor little Mr “A Synuclein” got the blame, but his older brother actually did it! Source: Youtube

And this is a very serious discussion point.

This year of 2017 represents the 200th anniversary of James Parkinson’s first description of Parkinson’s disease, but it also represents the 20th anniversary since the association between alpha synuclein and PD was first established. We have produced almost 7,000 research reports on the topic of alpha synuclein and PD during that time, and we currently have ongoing clinical trials targetting alpha synuclein.

But what if our basic premise – that alpha synuclein is the bad guy – is actually wrong?

Is there any evidence to suggest this?

We are just speculating here, but yes there is.

For example, in a study of 904 brains, alpha synuclein deposits were observed in 11.3% of the brains (or 106 cases), but of those cases only 32 had been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disorder (Click here to read more on this). The remaining 74 cases had demonstrated none of the clinical features of Parkinson’s disease.

So what else could be causing the cell death?

Well, this week some scientists from sunny Sydney (Australia) reported a protein that could fit the bill.

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Sydney. Source: Vagabond

The interesting part of their finding is that the protein is also associated with another neurodegenerative condition: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Remind me again, what is Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

Parkinson’s disease and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are the second and third most common adult-onset neurodegenerative conditions (respectively) after Alzheimer’s disease. We recently discussed ALS in a previous post (Click here to read that post).

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and motor neuron disease, is a neurodegenerative condition in which the neurons that control voluntary muscle movement die. The condition affects 2 people in every 100,000 each year, and those individuals have an average survival time of two to four years.

You may have heard of ALS due to it’s association with the internet ‘Ice bucket challenge‘ craze that went viral in 2014-15.

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The Ice bucket challenge. Source: Forbes

What is the protein associated with ALS?

In 1993, scientists discovered that mutations in the gene called SOD1 were associated with familial forms of ALS (Click here to read more about this). We now know that mutations in the SOD1 gene are associated with around 20% of familial cases of ALS and 5% of sporadic ALS.

The SOD1 gene produces an enzyme called Cu-Zn superoxide dismutase.

This enzyme is a very powerful antioxidant that protects the body from damage caused by toxic free radical generated in the mitochondria.

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SOD1 protein structure. Source: Wikipedia

One important note here regarding ALS: the genetic mutations in the SOD1 gene do not cause ALS by affecting SOD1’s antioxidant properties (Click here to read more about this). Rather, researchers believe that the cell death seen in SOD1-associated forms of ALS is the consequences of some kind of toxic effect caused by the mutant protein.

So what did the Aussie researchers find about SOD1 in Parkinson’s disease?

This week, the Aussie researchers published this research report:

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Title: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis-like superoxide dismutase 1 proteinopathy is associated withneuronal loss in Parkinson’s disease brain.
Authors: Trist BG, Davies KM, Cottam V, Genoud S, Ortega R, Roudeau S, Carmona A, De Silva K, Wasinger V, Lewis SJG, Sachdev P, Smith B, Troakes C, Vance C, Shaw C, Al-Sarraj S, Ball HJ, Halliday GM, Hare DJ, Double KL.
Journal: Acta Neuropathol. 2017 May 19. doi: 10.1007/s00401-017-1726-6.
PMID: 28527045

Given that oxidative stress is a major feature of Parkinson’s disease, the Aussie researchers wanted to investigate the role of the anti-oxidant enzyme, SOD1 in this condition. And what they found surprised them.

Heck, it surprised us!

Two areas affected by Parkinson’s disease – the substantia nigra (where the dopamine neurons reside; SNc in the image below) and the locus coeruleus (an area in the brain stem that is involved with physiological responses to stress; LC in the image below) – exhibited little or no SOD1 protein in the control brains.

But in the Parkinsonian brains, there was a great deal of SOD1 protein (see image below).

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SO1 staining in PD brain and Control brains. Source: Springer

In the image above, you can see yellowish-brown stained patches in both the PD and control images. This a chemical called neuromelanin and it can be used to identify the dopamine-producing cells in the SNc and LC. The grey staining in the PD images (top) are cells that contain SOD1. Note the lack of SOD1 (grey staining) in the control images (bottom).

Approximately 90% of Lewy bodies in the Parkinson’s affected brains contained SOD1 protein. The investigators did report that the levels of SOD1 protein varied between Lewy bodies. But the clustered (or ‘aggregated’) SOD1 protein was not just present with alpha synuclein, often it was found by itself in the degenerating regions.

The researchers occasional saw SOD1 aggregation in regions of age-matched control brains, and they concluded that a very low level of SOD1 must be inherent to the normal ageing process.

But the density of SOD1 clustering was (on average) 8x higher in the SNc and 4x higher in the LC in the Parkinsonian brain compared to age-matched controls. In addition, the SOD1 clustering was significantly greater in these regions than all of the non-degenerating regions of the same Parkinson’s disease brains.

The investigators concluded that these data suggest an association between SOD1 aggregation and neuronal loss in Parkinson’s disease. Importantly, the presence of SOD1 aggregations “closely reflected the regional pattern of neuronal loss”.

They also demonstrated that the SOD1 protein in the Parkinsonian brain was not folded correctly, a similar characteristic to alpha synuclein. A protein must fold properly to be able to do it’s assigned jobs. By not folding into the correct configuration, the SOD1 protein could not do it’s various functions – and the investigators observed a 66% reduction in SOD1 specific activity in the SNc of the Parkinson’s disease brains.

Interestingly, when the researchers looked at the SNc and LC of brains from people with ALS, they identified SOD1 aggregates matching the SOD1 clusters they had seen in these regions of the Parkinson’s disease brain.

Is this the first time SOD1 has been associated with Parkinson’s disease?

No, but it is the first major analysis of postmortem Parkinsonian brains. SOD1 protein in Lewy bodies has been reported before:

1995

Title: Cu/Zn superoxide dismutase-like immunoreactivity is present in Lewy bodies from Parkinson disease: a light and electron microscopic immunocytochemical study
Authors: Nishiyama K, Murayama S, Shimizu J, Ohya Y, Kwak S, Asayama K, Kanazawa I.
Journal: Acta Neuropathol. 1995;89(6):471-4.
PMID: 7676802

The investigators behind this study reported SOD1 protein was present in Lewy bodies, in the substantia nigra and locus coeruleus of brains from five people with Parkinson’s disease. Interestingly, they showed that SOD1 is present in the periphery of the Lewy body, similar to alpha synuclein. Both of these protein are present on the outside of the Lewy body, as opposed to another Parkinson’s associated protein, Ubiquitin, which is mainly present in the centre (or the core) of Lewy bodies (see image below).

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A more recent study also demonstrated SOD1 protein in the Parkinsonian brain, including direct interaction between SOD1 and alpha synuclein:

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Title: α-synuclein interacts with SOD1 and promotes its oligomerization
Authors: Helferich AM, Ruf WP, Grozdanov V, Freischmidt A, Feiler MS, Zondler L, Ludolph AC, McLean PJ, Weishaupt JH, Danzer KM.
Journal: Mol Neurodegener. 2015 Dec 8;10:66.
PMID: 26643113              (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

These researchers found that alpha synuclein and SOD1 interact directly, and they noted that Parkinson’s disease related mutations in alpha synuclein (A30P, A53T) and ALS associated mutation in SOD1 (G85R, G93A) modify the binding of the two proteins to each other. They also reported that alpha synuclein accelerates SOD1 aggregation in cell culture. This same group of researchers published another research report last year in which they noted that aggregated alpha synuclein increases SOD1 clustering in a mouse model of ALS (Click here for more on this).

We should add that alpha synuclein aggregations in ALS are actually quite common (click here and here to read more on this).

Are there any genetic mutations in the SOD1 gene that are associated with Parkinson’s disease?

Two studies have addressed this question:

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Title: Sequence of the superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD 1) gene in familial Parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Bandmann O, Davis MB, Marsden CD, Harding AE.
Journal: J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1995 Jul;59(1):90-1.
PMID: 7608718                   (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

And then in 2001, a second analysis:

Genes2

Title: Genetic polymorphisms of superoxide dismutase in Parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Farin FM, Hitosis Y, Hallagan SE, Kushleika J, Woods JS, Janssen PS, Smith-Weller T, Franklin GM, Swanson PD, Checkoway H.
Journal: Mov Disord. 2001 Jul;16(4):705-7.
PMID: 11481695

Both studies found no genetic variations in the SOD1 gene that were more frequent in the Parkinson’s affected community than the general population. So, no, there are no SOD1 genetic mutations that are associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Are there any treatments targeting SOD1 that could be tested in Parkinson’s disease?

Great question. Yes there are. And they have already been tested in models of PD:

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Title: The hypoxia imaging agent CuII(atsm) is neuroprotective and improves motor and cognitive functions in multiple animal models of Parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Hung LW, Villemagne VL, Cheng L, Sherratt NA, Ayton S, White AR, Crouch PJ, Lim S, Leong SL, Wilkins S, George J, Roberts BR, Pham CL, Liu X, Chiu FC, Shackleford DM, Powell AK, Masters CL, Bush AI, O’Keefe G, Culvenor JG, Cappai R, Cherny RA, Donnelly PS, Hill AF, Finkelstein DI, Barnham KJ.
Title: J Exp Med. 2012 Apr 9;209(4):837-54.
PMID: 22473957               (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

CuII(atsm) is a drug that is currently under clinical investigation as a brain imaging agent for detecting hypoxia (damage caused by lack of oxygen – Click here to read more about this).

The researchers conducting this study, however, were interested in this compound for other reasons: CuII(atsm) is also a highly effective scavenger of a chemical called ONOO, which can be very toxic. CuII(atsm) not only inhibits this toxicity, but it also blocks the clustering of alpha synuclein. And given that CuII(atsm) is capable of crossing the blood–brain barrier, these investigators wanted to assess the drug for its ability to rescue model of Parkinson’s disease.

And guess what? It did!

And not just in one model of Parkinson’s disease, but FOUR!

The investigators even waited three days after giving the neurotoxins to the mice before giving the CuII(atsm) drug, and it still demonstrated neuroprotection. It also improved the behavioural features of these models of Parkinson’s disease.

Is CuII(atsm) being tested for anything else in Clinical trials?

Yes, there is a clinical trial ongoing for ALS in Australia.

The Phase I study, being run by Collaborative Medicinal Development Pty Limited, is a dose escalating study of Cu(II)ATSM to determine if this drug is safe for use in ALS (Click here for more on this study).

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Cu(II)ATSM is an orally administered drug that inhibits the activity of misfolded SOD1 protein. It has been shown to paradoxically increase mutant SOD1 protein in a mouse model of ALS, but it also provides neuroprotection and improves the outcome for these mice (Click here to read more on this).

If this trial is successful, it would be interesting to test this drug on a cohort of people with Parkinson’s disease. Determining which subgroup of the Parkinson’s affected community would most benefit from this treatment is still to be determined. There is some evidence published last year that suggests people with genetic mutations in the Parkinson’s associated gene PARK2 could benefit from the approach (Click here to read more on this). More research, however, is needed in this area.

So what does it all mean?

Right, so summing up, a group of Australian researchers have reported that the ALS associated protein SOD1 is closely associated with the cell death that we observe in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease.

They suggest that this could highlight a common mechanisms of toxic SOD1 aggregation in both Parkinson’s disease and ALS. Individuals within the Parkinson’s affected community do not appear to have any genetic mutations in the SOD1 gene, which makes this finding is very interesting.

What remains to be determined is whether SOD1 aggregation is a “primary pathological event”, or if it is secondary to some other disease causing agent. We are also waiting to see if a clinical trial targeting SOD1 in ALS is successful. If it is, there may be good reasons for targeting SOD1 as a novel treatment for Parkinson’s disease.


The banner for today’s post was sourced from Pinterest

Hepatitis – Parkinson’s goes viral?

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Last week a new piece of Parkinson’s disease research has been widely discussed in the media.

It involves Hepatitis – the viral version of it at least.

In today’s post we will review the research and discuss what it may mean for Parkinson’s disease.


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A lewy body (brown with a black arrow) inside a cell. Source: Cure Dementia

A definitive diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease can only be made at the postmortem stage with an examination of the brain. Until that moment, all cases of Parkinson’s disease are ‘suspected’.

Critical to that postmortem diagnosis is the presence of circular shaped, dense clusters of proteins, called Lewy bodies (see the image above for a good example).

What causes Lewy bodies? We don’t know, but many people have theories.

This is Friedrich Heinrich Lewy (1885-1950).

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Friedrich Lewy. Source: Lewy Body Society

As you can probably guess, Friedrich was the first to discover the ‘Lewy body’. His finding came by examining the brains of 85 people who died with Parkinson’s disease between 1908 – 1923.

In 1931, Friedrich Lewy read a paper at the International Congress of Neurology in Bern. During that talk he noted the similarities between the circular inclusions (called ‘negri bodies’) in the brains of people who suffered from rabies and his own Lewy bodies (observed in Parkinson’s disease).

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A Negri body in a cell affected by rabies (arrow). Source: Nethealthbook

Given the similarities, Lewy proposed a viral cause for Parkinson’s disease.

Now, the idea that Parkinson’s disease could have a viral component has existed for a long time – even before Lewy made his conclusion. As we have previous mentioned, theories of viral causes for Parkinson’s have been circulating ever since the 1918 flu pandemic (Click here to read our post on this topic).

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An example of post-encephalitic Parkinsonism. Source: Baillement

About the same time as the influenza virus was causing havoc around the world, another condition began to appear called ‘encephalitis lethargica‘ (also known as post-encephalitic Parkinsonism). This disease left many of the victims in a statue-like condition, both motionless and speechless – similar to Parkinson’s disease. Initially, it was assumed that the influenza virus was the causal factor, but more recent research has left us not so sure anymore.

Since then there, however, has been additional bits of evidence suggesting a viral role in Parkinson’s disease. Such as this report:

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Title: Highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus can enter the central nervous system and induce neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration.
Author: Jang H, Boltz D, Sturm-Ramirez K, Shepherd KR, Jiao Y, Webster R, Smeyne RJ.
Journal: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Aug 18;106(33):14063-8.
PMID: 19667183

The researchers in this study found that when they injected the highly infectious H5N1 influenza virus into mice, the virus progressed from the periphery (outside the brain) into the brain itself, where it induced Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms. The virus also caused a significant increase in the accumulation of the Parkinson’s associated protein Alpha Synuclein. Importantly, they witnessed the loss of dopamine neurons in the midbrain of the mice 60 days after resolution of the infection – that cell loss resembling what is observed in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease.

The Parkinson’s associated protein alpha synuclein has also recently demonstrated anti-viral properties:

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Title: Alpha-Synuclein Expression Restricts RNA Viral Infections in the Brain.
Authors: Beatman EL, Massey A, Shives KD, Burrack KS, Chamanian M, Morrison TE, Beckham JD.
Journal: J Virol. 2015 Dec 30;90(6):2767-82. doi: 10.1128/JVI.02949-15.
PMID: 26719256               (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

David Beckham (not the football player) and his research colleagues introduced West nile virus to brain cells grown in cell culture and they observed an increase in alpha synuclein production. They also found that the brains of people with West nile infections had increased levels of alpha synuclein.

The researchers then injected West Nile virus into both normal mice and genetically engineered mice (which produced no alpha synuclein) and they found that the genetically engineered mice which produced no alpha synuclein died quicker than the normal mice. They reported that there was an almost 10x increase in viral production in the genetically engineered mice. This suggested to them that alpha synuclein may be playing a role in protecting cells from viral infections.

Interesting, but what about this new data involving Hepatitis?

Yes, indeed. Let’s move on.

Wait a minute, what is Hepatitis exactly?

The name Hepatitis comes from the Greek: Hepat – liver; and itis – inflammation, burning sensation. Thus – as the label suggests – Hepatitis is inflammation of liver tissue.

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Hepatitis and the liver. Source: HealthandLovepage

It can be caused by infectious agents (such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites), metabolic changes (induced by drugs and alcohol), or autoimmune/genetic causes (involving a genetic predisposition).

The most common cause of hepatitis is viral.

There are five main types of viral hepatitis (labelled A, B, C, D, and E). Hepatitis A and E are mainly spread by contaminated food and water. Both hepatitis B and hepatitis C are commonly spread through infected blood (though Hepatitis B is mainly sexually transmitted). Curiously, Hepatitis D can only infect people already infected with hepatitis B.

Hepatitis A, B, and D are preventable via the use of immunisation. A vaccine for hepatitis E has been developed and is licensed in China, but is not yet available elsewhere

Hepatitis C, however, is different.

There is currently no vaccine for it, mainly because the virus is highly variable between strains and the virus mutates very quickly, making an effective vaccine a difficult task. A number of vaccines under development (Click here for more on this).

What is known about Hepatitis C and the brain?

Quite a bit.

Similar to HIV (which we discussed in a previous post), the hepatitis C virus (HCV) enters the brain via infected blood-derived macrophage cells. In the brain, it is hosted by microglial cells, which results in altered functioning of those microglial cells. This causes problems for neuronal cells – including dopamine neurons. For example, people infected with HCV have reduced dopamine transmission, based on brain imaging studies (Click here and here for more on this result).

Have there been connections between hepatitis C virus and Parkinson’s disease before?

Yes.

Dopatitle

 

Title: Hepatitis C virus infection: a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Wu WY, Kang KH, Chen SL, Chiu SY, Yen AM, Fann JC, Su CW, Liu HC, Lee CZ, Fu WM, Chen HH, Liou HH.
Journal: J Viral Hepat. 2015 Oct;22(10):784-91.
PMID: 25608223

The researchers in this study used data collected from a community-based screening program in north Taiwan which involved 62,276 people. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the prevalence of hepatitis C viral infection worldwide is approximately 2.2–3%, representing 130–170 million people. Taiwan is a high risk area for hepatitis, with antibodies for hepatitis viruses in Taiwan present in 4.4% in the general population (Source).

The researchers found that the significant association between hepatitis C viral infections and Parkinson’s disease – that is to say, a previous infection of hepatitis C increased the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease (by 40%). The researchers then looked at what the hepatitis C and B viral infections do to dopamine neurons growing in cell culture. They found that hepatitis C virus induced 60% dopaminergic cell death, while hepatitis B had no effect.

This study was followed up a few months later, by a second study suggesting an association between Hepatitis C virus and Parkinson’s disease:

Hep title

Title: Hepatitis C virus infection as a risk factor for Parkinson disease: A nationwide cohort study.
Authors: Tsai HH, Liou HH, Muo CH, Lee CZ, Yen RF, Kao CH.
Journal: Neurology. 2016 Mar 1;86(9):840-6.
PMID: 26701382

The researchers in this study wanted to investigate whether hepatitis C could be a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease. They did this by analyzing data from 2000-2010 drawn again from the Taiwan National Health Insurance Research Database.

The database included 49,967 people with either hepatitis B, hepatitis C or both, in addition to 199,868 people without hepatitis. During the 12 year period, 270 participants who had a history of hepatitis developed Parkinson’s disease (120 still had hepatitis C). This compared with 1,060 participants who were free of hepatitis, but went on to develop Parkinson’s disease.

When the researchers controlled for potentially confounding factors (such as age, sex, etc), the researchers found participants with hepatitis C had a 30% greater risk of developing Parkinson’s disease than the controls.

So if this has been demonstrated, why is this new study last week so important?

Good question.

The answer is very simple: This study is not based on statistics from Taiwan – this new study has found the same result from a new population.

HEP TITLE

Title: Viral hepatitis and Parkinson disease: A national record-linkage study.
Authors: Pakpoor J, Noyce A, Goldacre R, Selkihova M, Mullin S, Schrag A, Lees A, Goldacre M.
Journal: Neurology. 2017 Mar 29. [Epub ahead of print]
PMID: 28356465

These researchers used the English National Hospital Episode Statistics database and linked it to mortality data collected from 1999 till 2011. They too have found a strong association between hepatitis C and Parkinson’s disease (standardized rate ratio 1.51, 95% CI 1.18–1.9).

Curiously (and different from the previous studies), the researchers in this study also found a strong association for hepatitis B and Parkinson’s disease (standardized rate ratio 1.76, 95% CI 1.28–2.37). And these associations appear to be specific to Hepatitis B and C, as the investigators did not find any association between autoimmune hepatitis, chronic hepatitis, or HIV.

One important caveat with this new study, however, is that the authors could not
control for lifestyle factors (such as smoking or alcohol consumption). In addition, their system of linking medical records may underestimate the numbers of patients with
Parkinson’s disease as it would not take into account people with Parkinson’s disease who do not seek medical advice or those who are misdiagnosed (given a wrong diagnosis – it does happen!).

Regardless of these cautionary notes, the results still add to the accumulating evidence of an association between the virus that causes Hepatitis and the neurodegenerative condition of Parkinson’s disease.

But what about those people with Parkinson’s disease who have never had Hepatitis?

Yeah, this is a good question.

But there is a rather uncomfortable answer to it.

Here’s the rub: “Approximately 70%–80% of people with acute Hepatitis C do not have any symptoms” (Source: Centre for Disease Control). That is to say, the majority of people infected with the Hepatitis C virus will not be aware that they are infected. Some of those people who are infected may think that they have a case of the flu (HCV symptoms include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite,…), while others will simply not display any symptoms at all.

So many people with Parkinson’s disease may have had HCV, but never been aware of it.

And this is the really difficult part of researching the causal elements of Parkinson’s disease.

The responsible agent may actually leave little or no sign that they were ever present. For a long time, people have suggested that Parkinson’s disease is caused by a thief in the night – some agent that comes in, causes a problem and disappears without detection.

Perhaps Hepatitis is that thief.

But hang on a second, 60–70% of HCV infected people will go on to develop chronic liver disease (Source). Do people with Parkinson’s disease have liver issue?

Umm, well actually, in some cases: yes.

There have been studies of liver function in Parkinson’s disease where abnormalities have been found (Click here for more on this). And dopamine cell dysfunction has been seen in people with cirrhosis issues (Click here for more on this). In fact, the prevalence of Parkinsonism in people with cirrhosis has been estimated to be as high as 20% (and Click here for more on that).

So what are we saying? Hepatitis causes Parkinson’s disease???

No, we are not saying that.

Proving causality is the hardest task in science.

In addition, there have been a few studies in the past that have looked at viral infections as the cause of Parkinson’s disease that found strong associations with other viruses. For example this study:

Title: Infections as a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease: a case-control study.
Authors: Vlajinac H, Dzoljic E, Maksimovic J, Marinkovic J, Sipetic S, Kostic V.
Journal: Int J Neurosci. 2013 May;123(5):329-32.
PMID: 23270425

In this study, the researchers found that Parkinson’s Disease was also significantly associated to mumps, scarlet fever, influenza, and whooping cough as well as herpes simplex 1 infections. They found no association between Parkinson’s disease and Tuberculosis, measles or chickenpox though.

This result raises the tantalizing possibility that other viruses may also be involved with the onset of Parkinson’s disease (it should be added though that this study was based on only 110 people with Parkinson’s (compared with 220 controls) in one particular geographical location (Belgrade, Serbia)).

So different viruses may cause Parkinson’s disease?

We are not saying that either, but we would like to see more research on this topic.

And the situation may actually be more complicated than we think.

Recently, it has been reported that previous infection with flaviviruses (such as dengue) actually enhances the effect of Zika virus infect (Click here to read more on this). That is to say, a prior infection by one particular virus may exacerbate the infection of another virus. It could be that a previous infection by one virus increases that chance that a later infection by another virus – a particular combination of viral infections – may result in Parkinsonian symptoms (we are simply speculating here). 

Add to this complicated situation, the sheer number of unknown viruses. It is estimated that there are a minimum of 320,000 mammalian viruses still awaiting discovery (Click here for the source of this statistic), thus it is possible that additional unknown viruses may be involved with disease initiation for conditions like Parkinson’s disease.

A gang of unknown thieves in the night perhaps?

So what does it all mean?

Summing up: last week a new study was published that supported previous results that Hepatitis C viral infections could increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. The results are important because they replicate previous findings from a different population of people.

The findings do not immediately mean that people with Hepatitis C are going to develop Parkinson’s disease, but it does suggest that they may be more vulnerable. The findings also suggest that more research is needed on the role of viral/infectious agents in the development of Parkinson’s disease.

We would certainly like to see more research in this area.


The banner for today’s post was sourced from Youtube

A new theory of Parkinson’s disease

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The great American baseball legend, Yogi Berra, once said: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.”

Silly as it reads, there is a great deal of truth to that statement.

In science, we very quickly chase after a particular theory as soon as a little bit of evidence is produced that supports it. Gradually, these theories become our basic understanding of a situation, until someone points out the holes in the theory and we have to revise it.

A new theory of Parkinson’s disease has recently been proposed. In today’s post we will review what the theory is suggesting and what evidence there is to support it.


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“I still say it’s only a theory”. Source: NewYorker

In the age of ‘alternative facts’, it is always important to remember that we don’t know as much as we think we do. In fact, much of our modern world still relies on a kind of faith rather than actual ‘facts’. For example, we take a particular type of medicine, because it has worked for some people in the past, not because it will definitely make us better.

And the same applies to our understanding of neurodegenerative conditions, like Parkinson’s disease. Based on all the evidence we have collected thus far, we have theories of how Parkinson’s disease may be progressing. But there are always exceptions to the rule, and these force us to refine or reconsider our theories.

Recently a refinement to our theory of Parkinson’s disease has been suggested.

Who has suggested it?

This is Prof Ole Isacson.

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Source: Crunchbase

He’s a dude.

He is is a Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, and Chief Scientific Officer of the Neuroscience Research Unit and Senior Vice President at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

And this is Dr Simone Engelender.

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Source: Rappaport

She’s awesome as well.

She is Associate Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at the Rappaport Family Institute for Research in the Medical Sciences in Haifa, Israel.

Together they have proposed a new theory of Parkinson’s disease that has the research community talking:

trends
Title: The Threshold Theory for Parkinson’s Disease.
Authors: Engelender S, Isacson O.
Journal: Trends Neurosci. 2017 Jan;40(1):4-14.
PMID: 27894611

The new theory proposes that Parkinson’s disease may actually be a ‘systemic condition’ (that is, affecting cells everywhere at the same time), but the clinical features – such as motor issues – only appear as certain thresholds are passed in the affected populations of neurons in the brain.

What does that mean?

Wait a minute. Let’s start at the beginning.

Before discussing what the new theory suggests, shall we first have a look at what the old theories proposed?

Ok, what did the old theory propose?

This is Prof Heiko Braak:

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Source – Memim.com

He’s pretty cool too. Nice guy.

Many years ago, Prof Braak – a German neuroanatomist – sat down and examined hundreds of postmortem brains from people with Parkinson’s disease.

He had collected brains from people at different stages of Parkinson’s disease – from just after being diagnosed to having had the condition for decades – and he was looking for any kind of pattern that might explain where and how the disease starts. His research led to what is referred to as the “Braak stages of Parkinson’s disease” – a six step explanation of how the disease spreads up from the brain stem and into the rest of the brain (Click here to read more about this).

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The Braak stages of PD. Source: Nature

Braak’s results also led him to propose that Parkinson’s disease may actually begin in the brain stem (which connects the brain to the spinal cord) and the disease slowly works it’s way up into the brain.

That is the ‘ascending’ theory of Parkinson’s disease.

This idea has been further adapted by Braak and others with the discovery of Parkinson’s disease features in the gut (we have discussed this in previous posts – Click here and here to read those posts).

But how does the disease actually spread?

Good question.

The spread of the condition is believed to be due to the protein alpha synclein being passed between cells in some manner. This idea stemmed from the analysis of the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease who received cell transplantation therapy in the 1980-90’s. After those people passed away (due to natural causes), their brains were analysed and it was discovered that some of the cells in the transplants (1-5%) have Lewy bodies in them (Lewy bodies are one of the hallmarks of Parkinson’s disease, dense circular clusters of proteins including alpha synuclein). This suggests that the disease is passed on to the healthy transplanted cells in some way.

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Photos of neurons from the post-mortem brains of people with Parkinson’s that received transplants. White arrows in the images above indicate lewy bodies inside transplanted cells. Source: The Lancet

So the research community has been working with the idea of an ‘ascending’ theory of Parkinson’s disease, and the spreading of the condition via the passing of alpha synuclein from cell to cell. And this theory has been fine,…

Why do I feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming?

Because there is a ‘but’ coming.

And it’s a big BUT.

But as Prof Isacson and Dr Engelender point out there are some holes in this theory.

Some big holes.

For example, in a 2008 study of 71 postmortem brains from people with Parkinson’s disease, 47% of the cases did not fit the predicted ‘Braak theory’ spread of alpha synuclein, and 7% of those cases did not have any cell loss in the dorsal motor nucleus (one of the first sites of damage in the Braak theory – Click here to read more).

Ok, so the theory is not perfect…what are Prof Isacson and Dr Engelender proposing instead?

They suggest that alpha synuclein accumulation starts at about the same time in nerve cells throughout the body, but the different groups of nerve cell differ in how much toxicity they can handle.

Some of these groups of cells can handle a lot (and more than half of the cells need to be lost before clinical features begin to appear), while others have a lower ‘threshold’ (only a few cells need to die before symptoms appear).

Prof Isacson and Dr Engelender argue that the nerve cells around the gut, for example, have a lower reserve (or total number), and, therefore, symptoms related to the gut become more obvious sooner as those cells die off or become less efficient. This lower threshold is in contrast to the more well known cell loss of the dopamine producing neurons in the midbrain, where approximately 50-70 percent of the dopamine neurons disappear before the classical motor features of Parkinson’s start to appear. Their theory suggests that this part of the brain has a larger reserve, and thus higher threshold.

Hence the reason why this is being called the ‘threshold theory’.

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Some groups of cells may have a higher threshold in Parkinson’s disease. Source: Cell

Some cells may have a low threshold and only require a few cells to be lost before the clinical features associated with those cells begin to appear. These symptoms would obviously appear earlier than those features associated with a high threshold population of cells, which required substantial loss before symptoms appear.

This idea would explain differing results seen in research findings regarding, for example, vagotomies (the cutting of the vagus nerve to the gut – click here to read more about this). This new theory would suggest that the procedure might not have any impact at all on lowering the risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Both scientists insist that searching for treatments that slow or block the aggregation of alpha synuclein is still necessary.

“Instead of studying how proteins move from one neuron to another and searching for compounds that prevent the ‘spread’ of aggregated alpha-synuclein, we need to study why alpha-synuclein accumulates within neurons and how these neurons die in the disease, and search for compounds that prevent the general neuronal dysfunction,” – Dr Engelender

(Source: Science Daily)

So are there any problems with this new theory?

The new theory is a very interesting idea and deserves consideration. It solves some of the problems with the “ascending theory” discussed further above. But it also faces some of the same problems that the ascending theory has to deal with.

For example, in one large autopsy study which investigated 904 brains, the investigators blindly collected all of the brains that had alpha synuclein present in the groups of neurons that are affected in Parkinson’s disease (eg. the dorsal motor nucleus of vagus, substantia nigra, and/or basal forebrain nuclei.). They found that alpha synuclein was observed in 11.3% (or 106 cases). But when the researchers then looked at the clinical notes associated with those cases, only 32 (30%) had been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disorder. The rest had demonstrated no clinical features.

Another study found that 8.3% of the aged control brains had alpha synuclein present in them. In addition, the presence of alpha synuclein is not specific to Parkinson’s disease – approximately 50% of people who die with Alzheimer’s disease have been found to have Lewy bodies. These results suggest that alpha synuclein aggregation can be present in both healthy and diseased brains. But if this is so, what role is alpha synuclein playing in Parkinson’s disease?

(You see the sort of problems we are dealing with in research when trying to come up with a theory of how something complicated is actually working?)

What does it all mean?

The central job of a scientist is to test hypotheses.

A hypothesis is a true or false statement (for example, hypothesis: the sun will come up tomorrow – easy to test as the sun either will or won’t come up; the statement is either true or false). In building one hypothesis on top of another hypothesis, we develop theories about how the world around us works.

Sometimes our hypotheses can unwittingly take us in a particular direction, depending on different variables. The danger in this process (one which must be met with discipline and control procedures) is that one can start to look for results that support a hypothesis or theory. It is a very human characteristic to become blind to any evidence to the contrary.

A new theory of Parkinson’s disease has been proposed. It suggests that rather than the condition starting in one location and progressively moving higher into the brain, Parkinson’s disease may actually start everywhere and it is the varying levels of tolerance between different types of cells that determines which cells die first.

It is certainly a new take of the available evidence and the research community is considering it. It will be interesting to see what kind of feedback results from this article, and we will post updates on that feedback as they become available.


The banner for today’s post was sourced from Sott

New kiwi research in Parkinson’s disease

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I really didn’t expect to be writing about Parkinson’s research being conducted in New Zealand again so quickly, but yesterday a new study was published which has a few people excited.

It presents evidence of how the disease may be spreading… using cells collected from people with Parkinson’s disease.

In today’s post we will review the study and discuss what it means for Parkinson’s disease.


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The South Island of NZ from orbit. Source: Sciencenews

We may have mentioned the protein Alpha synuclein once or twice on this blog.

For anyone familiar with the biology of Parkinson’s disease, alpha synuclein is a major player. It is either public enermy no.1 in the underlying pathology of this condition or else it is the ultimate ‘fall guy’, left standing in the crime scene holding the bloody knife.

Remind me, what is alpha synuclein?

Alpha synuclein is an extremely abundant protein in our brains – making up about 1% of all the proteins floating around in each neuron (one of the main types of cell in the brain).

In healthy brain cells, normal alpha synuclein is typically found just inside the surface of the membrane surrounding the cell body and in the tips of the branches extending from the cell (in structures called presynaptic terminals which are critical to passing messages between neurons).

And why is alpha synuclein important in Parkinson’s disease?

Genetic mutations account for 10-20% of the cases in Parkinson’s disease.

Five mutations in the alpha-synuclein gene have been identified which are associated with increased risk of Parkinson’s disease (A53T, A30P, E46K, H50Q, and G51D – these are coordinates for locations on the alpha synuclein gene). Rare duplication or triplication of the gene have also been associated with  Parkinson’s disease.

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The structure of alpha synuclein protein – blue squares are mutations. Source: Mdpi

So genetically, alpha synuclein is associated with Parkinson’s disease. But it is also involved at the protein level.

In brains of many people with Parkinson’s disease, there are circular clumps of alpha synuclein (and other proteins) that collect inside cells. These clumps are called Lewy bodies. They are particularly abundant in areas of the brain that have suffered cell loss.

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A lewy body (brown with a black arrow) inside a cell. Source: Cure Dementia

No one has ever seen the process of Lewy body formation, so all we can do is speculate about how these aggregates develop. Currently there is a lot of evidence supporting the idea that alpha synuclein can be passed between cells. Once inside the new cell, the alpha synuclein helps to seed the formation of new Lewy bodies, and this is how the disease is believed to progress.

Mechanism of syunuclein propagation and fibrillization

The passing of alpha synuclein between brain cells. Source: Nature

Exactly how alpha synuclein is being passed between cells is the topic of much research at the moment. There are many theories and some results implicating methods such as direct penetration, or via a particular receptor. Perhaps even by a small package called an exosome being passed between cells (see image above).

How this occurs in the Parkinson’s disease brain, however, is unknown.

And this (almost) brings us to the kiwi scientists.

Last years, a group of Swiss scientists demonstrated that alpha synuclein could be passed between cells via ‘nanotubes’ – tiny tubes connecting between cells. The outlined their observations and results in this article:

switzerland
Title: Tunneling nanotubes spread fibrillar α-synuclein by intercellular trafficking of lysosomes.
Authors: Abounit S, Bousset L, Loria F, Zhu S, de Chaumont F, Pieri L, Olivo-Marin JC, Melki R, Zurzolo C.
Journal: EMBO J. 2016 Oct 4;35(19):2120-2138.
PMID: 27550960

The researchers who conducted this study were interested in tunneling nanotubes.

Yes, I know, ‘What are tunneling nanotubes?’

Tunneling nanotubes (also known as Membrane nanotubes or cytoneme are long protrusions extending from one cell membrane to another, allowing the two cells to share their contents. They can extend for long distances, sometimes over 100 μm – 0.1mm, but that’s a long way in the world of cells!

nanotubes

Tunneling nanotubes (arrows). Source: Wikipedia (and PLOSONE)

Previous studies had demonstrated that tunneling nanotubes can pass different infectious agents (HIV for example – click here to read more on this), supporting the idea that these structures could be a general conduit by certain diseases could be spreading.

nanotubes

A tunneling nanotube between two cells. Source: Pasteur

In their study the Swiss researchers found that alpha synuclein could be transferred between brain cells (grown in culture) via tunneling nanotubes. In addition, following that process of transfer, the alpha synuclein was able to induce the aggregation (or clumping) of the alpha synuclein in recipient cells.

A particularly interesting finding was that alpha synuclein appeared to encourage the appearance of tunneling nanotubes (there were more tunneling nanotubes apparent when cells produced more alpha synuclein). And the alpha synuclein that was being transferred was being passed on in ‘lysosomal vesicles’ – these are the rubbish bags of the cell (lysosomal vesicles are used to take proteins away for degradation).

Paints a rather insidious picture of the ‘ultimate fall guy’ huh!

And that image was made worse by the results published by the kiwis last night:

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Title: α-synuclein transfer through tunneling nanotubes occurs in SH-SY5Y cells and primary brain pericytes from Parkinson’s disease patients
Authors: Dieriks BV, Park TI, Fourie C, Faull RL, Dragunow M, Curtis MA.
Journal: Scientific Reports, 7, Article number: 42984
PMID: 28230073                    (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

In their study, the New Zealand scientists extended the Swiss research by looking at cells collected from people with Parkinson’s disease. The researchers took human brain pericytes, which were derived from the postmortem brains of people who died with Parkinson’s disease.

And before you ask: pericytes are cells that wrap around the cells lining small blood vessels. They are important to the development of new blood vessels and maintaining the structural integrity of microvasculature.

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A pericyte (blue) hugging a blood vessel (red). Source: Xvivo

Pericytes contain alpha synuclein precipitates like those seen in neurons, and the kiwi scientists demonstrated that pericytes too can transfer alpha synuclein via tunneling nanotubes to neighbouring cells – representing a non-neuronal method of transport.

They also found that the transfer through the tunneling nanotubes can be very rapid – within 30 seconds – and the transferred alpha synuclein can hang around for more than 72 hours, suggesting that it is difficult for the receiving cell to dispose of. The researchers did note that the transfer through tunneling nanotubes occurred only in small subset of cells, but that this could explain the slow progression of Parkinson’s disease over time.

What does it all mean?

In order for us to truly tackle Parkinson’s disease and bring it under control, we need to know how this slowly progressing neurodegenerative condition is spreading. Some researchers in New Zealand have provided evidence involving cells collected from people with Parkinson’s disease that indicates one method by which the disease could be passed from one cell to another.

Tiny tunnels between cells, allowing material to be shared, could explain how the disease slowly progresses. The scientists observed the Parkinson’s associated protein alpha synuclein being passed between cells and then hanging around for more than a few days.

This method of transfer was made more interesting because the New Zealand researchers reported that non-neuronal cells (Pericytes, collected from people with Parkinson’s disease) could also form tunneling nanotubes. This observation raises questions as to what role non-neuronal cells could be playing in Parkinson’s disease.

This line of questions will obviously be followed up in future research, as will efforts to determine if tunneling nanotubes are actually present in the human brain or simply biological oddities present only in the culture dish. Demonstrating nanotubes in the brain will be difficult, but it would provide us with solid evidence that this method of disease transfer could be a bonafide cause of disease spread.

We watch with interest for further work in this area.


FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this blog is a kiwi… and proud of it. He is familiar with the researchers who have conducted this research, but has had no communication with them regarding the publishing of this post. He simply thought that the results of their study would be of interest to the Parkinson’s community.


The banner for today’s post was sourced from Pinterest

A new LAG in Parkinson’s

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We have talked a lot about a protein called Alpha Synuclein on this blog (see our primer page here and our previous post).

It is very closely associated with Parkinson’s disease, given that people with genetic mutations in the alpha synuclein gene are more vulnerable to the condition, AND the protein is a key component in the disease-related circular aggregations (called ‘Lewy bodies’) in the brain. Recently researchers have identified proteins that may be involved with the transfer of Alpha Synuclein between cells – the method by which the disease is believed to be spreading. By blocking or removing these proteins, the researchers have been able to block the transfer of alpha synuclein.

In this post, we will review the research and discuss what this could mean for Parkinson’s disease.


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Science conference. Source: JPL

At the recent annual Society for Neuroscience conference in sunny San Diego, Dr Ravindran Kumaran, a neuroscientist in the laboratory of Professor Mark Cookson (at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland) stood up and presented data about an interesting protein that few people in the audience had ever heard of.

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Title: High-content siRNA screen identifies cellular modifiers of pre-formed alpha-synuclein fibril uptake
Authors: Kumarani R, Fernandez D, Werner-Allen JW, Buehler E, Bax A, Lai-Nag M, Cookson MR.
Source: Click here to see the full abstract

Dr Kumaran and his colleagues had systematically removed the function of each gene – one by one – in cell cultures of human cancer cells, and then measured the efficiency of the cells to absorb (or ‘take up’) the Parkinson’s related protein, alpha synuclein. An absolutely laborious task (remember there are over 20,000+ genes), but when they turned off a gene called TM9SF2, something amazing happened:

The cells absorbed 75% less of the free floating alpha synuclein than normal health cells.

This caused a bit of excitement in the Parkinson’s research community. Here was a potential method of blocking the spreading of alpha synuclein.

The funny thing is: few people had ever heard of TM9SF2, and yet Dr Kumaran then showed that TM9SF2 is in the top 3% of all proteins present in the brain. In fact, the highest concentrations of TM9SF2 are in the substantia nigra and other brain regions that are most affected by Parkinson’s disease.

So you can hopefully understand why some people in the Parkinson’s research community thought that this was a wee bit exciting.

Plus, this data presentation came on the back of another study that was published in September which presented another protein (called Lag3) that exhibited a similar ability to reduce the absorption of alpha synuclein:

lag3

Title: Pathological α-synuclein transmission initiated by binding lymphocyte-activation gene 3.
Authors: Mao X, Ou MT, Karuppagounder SS, Kam TI, Yin X, Xiong Y, Ge P, Umanah GE, Brahmachari S, Shin JH, Kang HC, Zhang J, Xu J, Chen R, Park H, Andrabi SA, Kang SU, Gonçalves RA, Liang Y, Zhang S, Qi C, Lam S, Keiler JA, Tyson J, Kim D, Panicker N, Yun SP, Workman CJ, Vignali DA, Dawson VL, Ko HS, Dawson TM.
Journal: Science. 2016 Sep 30;353(6307).
PMID: 27708076

In this study, the researchers conducted a screen of 352 proteins that sit on the membrane of cells. They were measuring the level of alpha synuclein binding. They identified three interesting candidates for further investigation, include lymphocyte-activation gene 3 (LAG3), neurexin 1β, and amyloid β precursor-like protein 1 (APLP1).

When the researchers compared the three, they found that by removing LAG3 less alpha synuclein was taken into the cell (by endocytosis) than the other two proteins. In addition, when they increased the amount of LAG3 that a cell produces, they observed a similar increase in the amount of alpha synuclein absorbed by cells.

Next the researchers investigated the transmission of alpha synuclein between brain cells in both normal cells and cells that had no LAG3, and they found not only that LAG3 is required for the transmission, but the absence of LAG3 reduces the damage caused by the transmission.

Finally the researchers used small proteins (antibodies) to bind to and block LAG3, and they observed less transmission and damage caused by alpha synuclein. In their conclusions, the authors pointed out that LAG3 is not the only protein involved with the transmission of alpha synclein – there will be others – but it represents a potential future target for therapeutic intervention in Parkinson’s disease.

So what does this mean?

If the theory of alpha synuclein – that this protein is passed between cells, causing the spread of the disease – is correct, then any agent that can block that transmission should slow down or halt Parkinson’s disease. We have previously talked about vacines and antibodies against alpha synuclein being tested in the clinic (Click here, here and here for more on this), but blocking TM9SF2 and LAG3 represent a new method of preventing the transmission of alpha synuclein. This is very exciting. The more angles of attack that we have for designing a treatment the better our options.

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Schematic of how LAG3 may be working. Source: Science

We will be watching the field very closely and will keep you posted as new information comes to hand.


The banner for today’s post is sourced from Keepcalm-o-matic

Juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease

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A community in New Brunswick (Canada) was recently shocked to discover that a 2 year old boy in their midst had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (Click here to read more).

Yes, you read that correctly, it’s not a typo: a 2 year old boy.

Juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease is an extremely rare version of the condition we discuss here at the Science of Parkinson’s. It is loosely defined as being ‘diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease under the age of 20’. The prevalence is unknown, but there is a strong genetic component to form of the condition. In today’s post we will review what is known about Juvenile-onset and look at new research about a gene that has recently been discovered to cause a type of Juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease.


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Dr Henri Huchard. Source: Wikipedia

In 1875, Dr Henri Huchard (1844-1910; a French neurologist and cardiologist) described the first case of a child who, at just 3 years of age, presented all the clinical features of Parkinson’s disease. Since that report, there have been many studies detailing the condition that has become known as ‘juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease’.

What is juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease?

Basically, it is a form of Parkinson’s disease that affects children and young people under the age of 20. The defining feature is the age of onset. The average age of onset is approximately 12 years of age (with the majority of cases falling between 7 and 16 years) and males are affected by this condition more than females (at a rate of approximately 5:1).

The actual frequency of juvenile-onset parkinson’s is unknown given how rare it is. When researcher look at people with early onset Parkinson’s disease (that is diagnosis before the age of 40; approximately 5% of the Parkinson’s community), they have found that between 0.5 – 5% of that group of people were diagnosed before 20 years of age. This suggests that within just the Parkinson’s community, the frequency of juvenile-onset parkinson’s is at the most 0.25% (or 2.5 people per 1000 people with Parkinson’s). Thus it is obviously a very rare condition.

It is interesting to note that Lewy bodies (the clusters of aggregated protein that classically characterise the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease) are very rare in cases of juvenile-onset parkinson’s disease. To our knowledge there has been only one case of Lewy bodies in juvenile-onset parkinson’s disease (Click here to read more on this). This suggests that the juvenile-onset form of Parkinson’s disease may differ from other forms of the condition in its underlying biology.

Do we know what causes juvenile-onset parkinson’s disease?

There is a very strong genetic component to juvenile-onset parkinson’s disease. In fact, the incidence of Parkinsonism in relatives of people with juvenile-onset parkinson’s disease is higher than in the general public AND in the relatives of people with other forms of Parkinson’s disease.

Genetic mutations in three genes are recognised as causing juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease. The three genes are known to the Parkinson’s world as they are all PARK genes (genetic variations that are associated with Parkinson’s). Those three genes are:

  • Parkin (PARK2)
  • PTEN-induced putative kinase 1 (PINK1 or PARK6)
  • DJ1 (PARK7)

In juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease, all of these mutations are associated with autosomal recessive – meaning that two copies of the genetic variation must be present in order for the disease to develop.

Parkin mutations account for the majority of juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease cases. Affected individuals have a slowly progressing condition that is L-dopa responsive. Dystonia (abnormal muscle tone resulting in muscular spasm and abnormal posture) is very common at the onset of the condition, particularly in the lower limbs.

Can the condition be treated with L-dopa?

The answer is: ‘Yes, but…’

L-dopa (or dopamine replacement) treatment is the standard therapy for alleviating the motor features of Parkinson’s disease.

The majority of people with juvenile-onset parkinson’s respond well to L-dopa, but in the Parkin mutation version individuals will typically begin to experience L-dopa-induced motor fluctuations (dyskinesias) early in that treatment regime.

What research is currently being done on this condition?

Given that cases are so very rare and so few, it is difficult to conduct research on this population of individuals. Most of the research that is being conducted is focused on the genetics underlying the condition.

And recent that research lead to the discovery of a new genetic variation that causes juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease:

Juvenile

Title: Discovery of a frameshift mutation in podocalyxin-like (PODXL) gene, coding for a neural adhesion molecule, as causal for autosomal-recessive juvenile Parkinsonism.
Authors: Sudhaman S, Prasad K, Behari M, Muthane UB, Juyal RC, Thelma BK.
Journal: Journal Med Genet. 2016 Jul;53(7):450-6.
PMID: 26864383           (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

The researchers who wrote this article were presented with a 10 member Indian family from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. Of the 8 children in the  family, 3 were affected by Parkinsonian features (tremor, slowness, rigidity and gait problems) that began between 13 and 17 years of age. The researchers conducted DNA sequencing and found that none of the three affected siblings had any of the known Juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease genetic mutations (specifically, mutations in the genes PARK2, PINK1and DJ1).

They then compared the DNA from the three siblings with the rest of the family and found a genetic variant in a gene called podocalyxin-like (or PODXL). It must be noted that PODXL is a completely novel gene in the world of Parkinson’s disease research, which makes it very interesting. PODXL has never previously been associated with any kind of Parkinson’s disease, though it has been connected with two types of cancer (embryonal carcinoma and periampullary adenocarcinoma).

The researchers then turned to their genetic database of 280 people with Parkinson’s disease have had their genomes sequenced. The researchers wanted to determine if any genetic variants in the PODXL gene were present in other suffers of Parkinson’s disease, but had not been picked up as a major contributing factor. They found three unrelated people with PODXL mutations. All three had classical Parkinson’s features, and were negative for mutations in the Parkin, PINK1 and DJ1 genes.

The researchers concluded that the PODXL gene may be considered as a fourth causal gene for Juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease, but they indicated that further investigations in other ethnic groups are required.

 


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Traumatic brain injury and Parkinson’s disease – an association

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A new study has found traumatic brain injury with loss of consciousness is associated with the risk of Parkinson’s disease, but (interestingly) not Alzheimer’s disease. In this post we will review the study and its findings, before considering the implications of the results.


football-brain-ocotber-2009.jpg

Image sourced from GQ

There has been a lot of talk on the interweb and various media outlets recently about the long term consequences of head injuries associated with physical sports like boxing, rugby, ice hockey and American football (click here for more on this).

Of particular concern is when individuals lose consciousness at the time of the head injury, which has been associated with worse outcomes than simply suffering a bang on the head.

A group of American researchers recently decided to assess whether there was any association between traumatic head injury with loss of consciousness and the increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

What they found may have profound implications for Parkinson’s disease.

TBI-title

Title: Association of Traumatic Brain Injury With Late-Life Neurodegenerative Conditions and Neuropathologic Findings.
Authors: Crane PK, Gibbons LE, Dams-O’Connor K, Trittschuh E, Leverenz JB, Keene CD, Sonnen J, Montine TJ, Bennett DA, Leurgans S, Schneider JA, Larson EB.
Journal: JAMA Neurol. 2016 Jul 11. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2016.1948.
PMID: 27400367       (This study is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

The researchers collected the results of 3 large studies, collectively involving 7130 participants who had head injury data (2879 men and 4251 women; average age of 79.9 years). Of these 845 had suffered traumatic brain injuries with loss of consciousness for at least 1 hour. Interestingly, the researchers found no statistically significant association between traumatic brain injuries with loss of consciousness and risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Next they looked at Parkinson’s disease and found that people who suffered traumatic brain injuries with loss of consciousness of more than 1 hour had a statistically significant increase in developing Parkinson’s disease (2-3 times more than normal controls).

Of the 7130 participants in the study, postmortem autopsy analysis reports were available for 1589 of the subjects. The researchers looked for the neuropathological hallmarks of Parkinson’s disease, called Lewy bodies, and they found no correlation between people who suffered traumatic brain injuries with loss of consciousness of less than 1 hour and the presence of Lewy bodies. When they looked in the brains of people who suffered traumatic brain injuries with loss of consciousness of more than 1 hour, they did find a correlation. And importantly these neuropathological events were not associated with genetic mutations.

So what does it all mean? 

 

The results indicate that traumatic brain injuries with loss of consciousness of more than 1 hour could significantly increase a person’s risk of Parkinson’s disease. The crucial  detail in the results is the ‘loss of consciousness of more than 1 hour’. Traumatic head injury can often result in disruption to the blood-brain-barrier (the protective film surrounding the brain), which may result in certain pathogens entering the brain. So the more severe the injury, perhaps the longer the barrier is disrupted. Why this event may relate solely to Parkinson’s disease and not Alzheimer’s disease, however, remains to be determined.

It would be interesting to assess how this finding relates to the greater Parkinson’s community. That is to say, determine how many of the people with Parkinson’s disease have a head injury with loss of consciousness in their past medical records?

Reading this study, one cannot help thinking of the recent passing of Boxing great Muhammad Ali. Ali died this year having spent the last third of his life living with Parkinson’s disease. Many boxing careers have probably involved one or two severe head injuries with loss of consciousness, so why are there not more cases of Parkinson’s disease in the boxing community? Many retired boxers suffer from what is called Dementia pugilistica – a neurodegenerative condition with Alzheimer’s-like dementia. Some estimates suggest that 15-20% of boxers may be affected, with symptoms usually starting 12-16 years after the start of a career in boxing. Some very famous boxers have been diagnosed with this condition, including world champions Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and boxer/coach Freddie Roach.

The difference between the results of today’s study and dementia pugilistica may lie in the repeated nature of the injuries in boxers and the length of time individuals were unconscious. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this research.

 

 


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