Each year King’s College London holds the Edmond J. Safra Memorial Lecture. It is a public event – exploring cutting-edge research on Parkinson’s – held in honour of the late philanthropist and financier, Mr Edmond J Safra, .
I was lucky enough to attend this year’s event (entitled A vision of tomorrow: How can technology improve diagnosis and treatment for Parkinson’s patients?). It highlighted the fantastic research being carried out by Professor Marios Politis and his team.
During the Q&A session of the event though, a question was asked from the audience regarding what the evolutionary advantage of Parkinson’s might be. The question drew a polite chuckle from the audience.
But the question wasn’t actually as silly as some might think.
In today’s post we look at some evidence suggesting an evolutionary advantage involving Parkinson’s.
King’s College London Chapel. Source: Schoolapply
Despite the impressive name, King’s College London is not one of the grand old universities of England.
Named after its patron King George IV (1762-1830), the university was only founded in 1829 (compare this with 1096 for Oxford and 1209 for Cambridge; even silly little universities like Harvard date back further – 1636). The university is spread over five separate campuses, geographically spread across London. But if you ever get the chance to visit the main Strand campus, ask for the chapel and take a moment to have a look – it is very impressive (the image above really doesn’t do it justice).
As I mentioned in the intro, each year King’s College London holds the Edmond J. Safra Memorial Lecture. It is an event that is open to the public and it involves a discussion regarding innovative new research on Parkinson’s. The evening is held in honour of the late Mr Edmond J Safra.
Edmond J. Safra. Source: Edmondjsafrafoundation
This year, Professor Marios Politis and members of his research group were presenting lectures on “How can technology improve diagnosis and treatment for Parkinson’s”. The lectures were very interesting, but the reason I am writing about it here is because during the question and answer session at the end of the lectures, the following question was asked:
“What’s the evolutionary advantage of Parkinson’s?”
Given the debilitating features of the condition, the audience was naturally amused by the question. And there was most likely several people present who would have thought the idea of any evolutionary advantage to Parkinson’s a ridiculous concept.
But it’s not.
And there is actually research to suggest that something evolutionary could be happening with Parkinson’s.
?!?!? What do you mean?
An Advanced Glycation Endproduct (or AGE) is a protein or lipid that has become glycated.
Glycation is a haphazard process that impairs the normal functioning of molecules. It occurs as a result of exposure to high amounts of sugar. These AGEs are present at above average levels in people with diabetes and various ageing-related disorders, including neurodegenerative conditions. AGEs have been shown to trigger signalling pathways within cells that are associated with both oxidative stress and inflammation, but also cell death.
RAGE (or receptor of AGEs) is a molecule in a cell membrane that becomes activated when it interacts with various AGEs. And this interaction mediates AGE-associated toxicity issues. Recently researchers found that that neurons carrying the Parkinson’s associated LRRK2 G2019S genetic variant are more sensitive to AGEs than neurons without the genetic variant.
In today’s post we will look at what AGE and RAGE are, review the new LRRK2 research, and discuss how blocking RAGE could represent a future therapeutic approach for treating Parkinson’s.
The wonder of ageing. Source: Club-cleo
NOTE: Be warned, the reading of this post may get a bit confusing. We are going to be discussing ageing (as in the body getting old) as well as AGEing (the haphazard process processing of glycation). For better clarification, lower caps ‘age’ will refer to getting old, while capitalised ‘AGE’ will deal with that glycation process. I hope this helps.
Ageing means different things to different people.
For some people ageing means more years to add to your life and less activity. For others it means more medication and less hair. More wrinkles and less independence; more arthritis and less dignity; More candles, and less respect from that unruly younger generation; More… what’s that word I’m thinking of? (forgetfulness)… and what were we actually talking about?
Wisdom is supposed to come with age, but as the comedian/entertainer George Carlin once said “Age is a hell of a price to pay for wisdom”. I have to say though, that if I had ever met Mr Carlin, I would have suggested to him that I’m feeling rather ripped off!
George Carlin. Source: Thethornycroftdiatribe
Whether we like it or not, from the moment you are born, ageing is an inevitable part of our life. But this has not stopped some adventurous scientific souls from trying to understand the process, and even try to alter it in an attempt to help humans live longer.
Regardless of whether you agree with the idea of humans living longer than their specified use-by-date, some of this ageing-related research could have tremendous benefits for neurodegenerative conditions, like Parkinson’s.
What do we know about the biology of ageing?
Genetic mutations (or ‘variants’) in the Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or LRRK2; also known as Dardarin) gene are associated with increased risk of Parkinson’s. As a result this gene has become the focus of a lot of genetic research.
But what about LRRK2’s less well-known, rather neglected sibling LRRK1?
In today’s post, we will look at new research that suggests the LRRK siblings could both be involved with Parkinson’s disease.
I recommend to the reader that today’s post should be read with the following music playing in the background:
Inspired by a poem of the same title, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote ‘The Lark Ascending’ in 1914. It is still to this day, a tune that remains a firm favourite with BBC listeners here in the UK (Source).
On to business:
While the music and the poem are about a songbird, today’s SoPD post deals with a different kind of Lark.
Or should I say LRRK.
This is Sergey Brin.
He was one of the founders of a small company you may have heard of – it’s called “Google”.
Having changed the way the world searches the internet, he is now turning his attention to other projects.
One of those other projects is close to our hearts: 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.
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.
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?
We have previously discussed the powerful antioxidant Resveratrol, and reviewed the research suggesting that it could be beneficial in the context of Parkinson’s disease (Click here to read that post).
I have subsequently been asked by several readers to provide a critique of the Parkinson’s-associated research focused on Resveratrol’s twin sister, Pterostilbene (pronounced ‘Terra-still-bean’).
But quite frankly, I can’t.
Why? Because there is NO peer-reviewed scientific research on Pterostilbene in models of Parkinson’s disease.
In today’s post we will look at what Pterostilbene is, what is known about it, and why we should seriously consider doing some research on this compound (and its cousin Piceatannol) in the context of Parkinson’s disease.
Blue berries are the best natural source of Pterostilbene. Source: Pennington
So this is likely to be the shortest post in SoPD history.
Because there is nothing to talk about.
There is simply no Parkinson’s-related research on the topic of today’s post: Pterostilbene. And that is actually a crying shame, because it is a very interesting compound.
What is Pterostilbene?
Like Resveratrol, Pterostilbene is a stilbenoid.
Stilbenoids are a large class of compounds that share the basic chemical structure of C6-C2-C6:
Resveratrol is a good example of a stilbenoid. Source: Wikipedia
Stilbenoids are phytoalexins (think: plant antibiotics) produced naturally by numerous plants. They are small compounds that become active when the plant is under attack by pathogens, such as bacteria or fungi. Thus, their function is generally considered to part of an anti-microbial/anti-bacterial plant defence system for plants.
The most well-known stilbenoid is resveratrol which grabbed the attention of the research community in a 1997 study when it was found to inhibit tumour growth in particular animal models of cancer:
Last Monday, a SpaceX rocket lifted off from the Florida peninsular on route to the International Space Station.
On board that craft was an experiment that could have big implications for Parkinson’s disease. It involves a Parkinson’s-associated protein called Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or LRRK2).
In today’s post, we will discuss why we needed to send this protein into orbit.
The International Space Station. Source: NASA
When you look up at the sky tonight – if you look for long enough – you may well see a bright little object hurtling across the sky (Click here to learn more about how to track the International Space Station). Know that inside that bright little object passing over you there is currently some Parkinson’s disease-related research being conducted.
What is the International Space Station?
The International Space Station (or the ISS) is the largest human-made object that we have ever put into space. It is so big in fact that you can see it with the naked eye from Earth.
(How’s that for exciting viewing?)
The current space station is 73.3 metres (240 feet) long and 44.5 metres (146 feet) wide, weighing approximately 420 tonnes (924,740 lb), and it has been continuously occupied for 16 years and 289 days, making it the longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit. The ISS travels at a speed of 7.67 km/second, maintains an altitude of between 330 and 435 km (205 and 270 mi), and completes 15.54 orbits per day (it has made over 102,000 orbits!).
The size of the the ISS compared to a Boeing Jumbo jet. Source: Reddit
First approved by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, it was not until November 1998 that the first components of the International space station were first launched into orbit. 36 shuttle flights were made to help build the station. The first crew members took up residence on the 2nd November 2000, and the station was completed in 2011. There is always 6 crew members on board – the current team are Expedition 52 – and it has been visited by 220 astronauts, cosmonauts and space tourists from 17 different nations since the project began.
Oh yeah, and if you want to see what it looks like on board the ISS, in 2015 the European Space Agency provided an interactive tour and earlier this year Google Maps added an interactive tour of the ISS.
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.
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:
Title: Parkinson’s disease in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Authors: Leverenz J, Sumi SM.
Journal: Arch Neurol. 1986 Jul;43(7):662-4.
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).
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???