Each time a cell divides, the DNA inside the resulting pair of cells has changed slightly. These small alterations – known as genetic mutations – provide a method by which an organism can randomly determine traits that may be beneficial.
New research indicates that in certain parts of the brain, post-mitotic (non-dividing) cells are taking on as many as one mutation per week across the span of our lives. This results in thousands of genetic variations accumulating in each cell by the time we eventually pass away in old age.
In today’s post we will review new research and consider what this gradual build up of genetic mutations could mean for our understanding of neurodegenerative conditions, like Parkinson’s.
Coming from the back waters of third world New Zealand, you will understand that sheep hold a very special place in my heart.
I grew up a simple country lad, and each year I had a pet lamb that I would raise and train to do silly tricks in the hope of impressing the judges at the annual agricultural/farm day at school. In addition to instilling me with a crazy fanaticism for the sport (read: religion) of rugby, my parents figured that having a pet lamb each year would teach me a sense of responsibility and a sort of discipline.
I’m not really sure how this practice has influenced my later life, but I certainly do have very fond memories of those early years (the first lamb was named ‘Woolly’, the 2nd lamb was named ‘Woolly2’, the third lamb was actually a goat – bad lambing season – which I named ‘Billy the kid’, the 4th lamb was named ‘MacGyver’,…).
Lots of happy memories.
But as I grew into the teenage years, there was one thing that really bothered me with regards to my pet lambs.
It was that whole negative stigma associated with the ‘black sheep’.
Why, I would wonder, was it the ‘black sheep of the family’ that was the bad kid? And why was the one black sheep in every flock considered the worst of the bunch?
Why was this association applied to sheep?
Why not dogs? Or cows? Why do we pick on sheep?
For a long time researchers have lacked truly disease-relevant models of Parkinson’s.
We have loaded cells with toxins to cause cell death, we have loaded cells with mutant proteins to cause cell death, we have loaded cells with… well, you get the idea. Long story short though, we have never had proper models of Parkinson’s – that is a model which present all of the cardinal features of the condition (Lewy bodies, cell loss, and motor impairment).
The various models we have available have provided us with a wealth of knowledge about the biology of how cells die and how we can protect them, which has led to numerous experimental drugs being tested in the clinic. But there has always been a linger question of ‘how disease-relevant are these models?’
This situation may be about to change.
In today’s post we will look at new research in which Japanese researchers have genetically engineered mice in which they observed the generation of Lewy bodies, the loss of dopamine neurons and motor impairments. We will look at how these mice have been generated, and what it may tell us about Parkinson’s.
Walt Disney. Source: PBS
Ok, before we start today’s post: Five interesting facts about the animator Walt Disney (1901 – 1966):
- Disney dropped out of high school at age 16 with the goal of joining the Army to help out in the war effort. He was rejected for being underage, but was able to get a job as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross in France.
- From 1928 (the birth of Mickey Mouse) until 1947, Disney himself performed the voice of Mickey.
- Mickey Mouse was originally named “Mortimer Mouse”, but it was Disney’s wife who suggested that the name Mortimer sounded too pompous (seriously, can you imagine a world with the “Mortimer Mouse show”?). She convinced Disney to change the name to Mickey (the name Mortimer was later given to one of Mickey’s rivals).
- To this day, Disney holds the record for the most individual Academy Awards and nominations. Between 1932 and 1969, he won 22 Academy Awards and was nominated 59 times (Source).
- And best of all: On his deathbed as he lay dying from lung cancer, Disney wrote the name “Kurt Russell” on a piece of paper. They were in effect his ‘last words’. But no one knows what they mean. Even Kurt is a bit perplexed by it all. He (along with many others) was a child actor contracted to the Disney company at the time, but why did Walt write Russell’s name as opposed to something more deep and meaningful (no disrespect intended towards Mr Russell).
Actor Kurt Russell. Source: Fxguide
When asked why he thought his great creation “Mickey mouse” was so popular, Walt Disney responded that “When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity”.
Mickey Mouse. Source: Ohmy.Disney
This is a curious statement.
Curious because in biomedical research, mice are used in experiments to better understand the molecular pathways underlying basic biology and for the testing of novel therapeutics, and yet they are so NOT human.
There are major biological differences between us and them.
Not human. Source: USNews
It has been a major dilemma for the research community for some time with regards to translating novel therapies to humans, and it raises obvious ethical questions of whether we should be using mice at all for the basic research if they are so different from us. This problem is particularly apparent in the field of immunology, where the differences between ‘mice and men’ is so vast in some cases that researcher have called for moving away from mice entirely and focusing on solely human models (Click here and here for a good reads on this topic).
What does this have to do with Parkinson’s?
In your brain there are different types of cells.
Firstly there are the neurons (the prima donnas that we believe do most of the communication of information). Next there are the microglia cells, which act as the first and main line of active immune defence in the brain. There are also oligodendrocyte, that wrap protective sheets around the branches of the neurons and help them to pass signals.
And then there are astrocytes.
These are the ‘helper cells’ which maintain a comfortable environment for the neurons and aid them in their task. Recently, researchers in California reported an curious observation in the Parkinsonian brain: some astrocytes have entered an altered ‘zombie’-like state. And this might not be such a good thing.
In today’s post, we’ll review the research and discuss what it could mean – if independently replicated – for the Parkinson’s community.
Zombies. Source: wallpapersbrowse
I don’t understand the current fascination with zombies.
There are books, movies, television shows, video games. All dealing with the popular idea of dead bodies wandering the Earth terrifying people. But why the fascination? Why does this idea have such appeal to a wide portion of the populous?
I just don’t get it.
Even more of a mystery, however, is where the modern idea of the ‘zombie’ actually came from originally.
You see, no one really knows.
Huh? What do you mean?
Some people believe that the word ‘zombie’ is derived from West African languages – ndzumbi means ‘corpse’ in the Mitsogo language of Gabon, and nzambi means the ‘spirit of a dead person’ in the Kongo language. But how did a word from the African continent become embedded in our psyche?
Others associate the idea of a zombie with Haitian slaves in the 1700s who believed that dying would let them return back to lan guinée (African Guinea) in a kind of afterlife. But apparently that freedom did not apply to situations of suicide. Rather, those who took their own life would be condemned to walk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity as an undead slave. Perhaps this was the starting point for the ‘zombie’.
More recently the word ‘zonbi’ (not a typo) appeared in the Louisiana Creole and the Haitian Creole and represented a person who is killed and was then brought to life without speech or free will.
Delightful stuff for the start of a post on Parkinson’s research, huh?
But we’re going somewhere with this.
This week a biotech company called Voyager Therapeutics announced the results of their ongoing phase Ib clinical trial. The trial is investigating a gene therapy approach for people with severe Parkinson’s disease.
Gene therapy is a technique that involves inserting new DNA into a cell using a virus. The DNA can help the cell to produce beneficial proteins that go on help to alleviate the motor features of Parkinson’s disease.
In today’s post we will discuss gene therapy, review the new results and consider what they mean for the Parkinson’s community.
On 25th August 2012, the Voyager 1 space craft became the first human-made object to exit our solar system.
After 35 years and 11 billion miles of travel, this explorer has finally left the heliosphere (which encompasses our solar system) and it has crossed into the a region of space called the heliosheath – the boundary area that separates our solar system from interstellar space. Next stop on the journey of Voyager 1 will be the Oort cloud, which it will reach in approximately 300 years and it will take the tiny craft about 30,000 years to pass through it.
Where is Voyager 1? Source: Tampabay
Where is Voyager actually going? Well, eventually it will pass within 1 light year of a star called AC +79 3888 (also known as Gliese 445), which lies 17.6 light-years from Earth. It will achieve this goal on a Tuesday afternoon in 40,000 years time.
Gliese 445 (circled). Source: Wikipedia
Remarkably, the Gliese 445 star itself is actually coming towards us. Rather rapidly as well. It is approaching with a current velocity of 119 km/sec – nearly 7 times as fast as Voyager 1 is travelling towards it (the current speed of the craft is 38,000 mph (61,000 km/h).
Interesting, but what does any of that have to do with Parkinson’s disease?
Well closer to home, another ‘Voyager’ is also ‘going boldly where no man has gone before’ (sort of).
The classical clinical motor features of Parkinson’s disease (slowness of movement, rigidity and a resting tremor in one of the limbs) are associated with the loss 60% of the dopamine neurons in the midbrain.
What does this mean?
The midbrain is a structure at the top of the spinal cord – just as you enter the brain proper – and dopamine is a chemical that is produced in the brain. The dopamine neurons in the midbrain form connections with different areas of the brain, and are involved in many basic neurological functions, such as movement, motivation and addiction.
Sections of the human midbrain from a healthy individual (left) and a person who had Parkinson’s disease (right). The dopamine cells in the control subject can be seen on both sides of the brain with the eye because they produce a chemical (neuromelanin) that makes them black. These cells are noticeably absent in the Parkinsonian brain. Source: Springer
Not all midbrain dopamine neurons are affected in the same way in Parkinson’s disease though.
There are three basic groupings of dopamine neurons in the midbrain region:
- The substantia nigra pars compacta (or SNC)
- The ventral tegmental area (or VTA)
- The retrorubral fields (this is a very small group compared with the VTA and SNC)
As the image above illustrates the SNC is divided into two regions – a dorsal layer and a ventral layer.
It has been acknowledged for a long time that the dopamine neurons in the SNC are more vulnerable in Parkinson’s disease than dopamine neurons in the VTA. We have no idea why this specific vulnerability exists. A great deal of attention has been focused on the SNC as a result.
The vulnerability of the SNC dopamine neurons when compared to the VTA, however, is not as clear as many researchers would believe.
In an interesting study published last year, some researchers from the University of Iowa, reviewed previous studies of postmortem analysis of the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease, in particular, focusing on the studies that had counted the number of dopamine neurons in the VTA and the SNC. The results were very interesting:
Title: The Vulnerable Ventral Tegmental Area in Parkinson’s Disease.
Authors: Alberico SL, Cassell MD, Narayanan NS.
Journal: Basal Ganglia. 2015 Aug 1;5(2-3):51-55.
In essence, the study was very simple: the researchers compared the percentage of VTA and SNC dopamine neurons lost in Parkinson’s disease as determined by eight previous studies. They then conducted their own postmortem analysis and compared the results.
In their review of the previous studies, the researchers found that while the SNC was more vulnerable in Parkinson’s disease (approximately 70% of the dopamine neurons are lost), the VTA region still lost 50% of it’s dopamine neurons (see table below).
Curiously, the researcher’s own postmortem analysis found that the VTA was actually more vulnerable than the SNC. Their analysis, however, was based on only 3 brains. In addition, questions can be raised as to how the previous studies defined the borders of the SNC and VTA. Difference exist in those delineations of borders, which may impact on the number of dopamine neurons counted in each region.
The important message, however, is that the VTA is also badly affected in Parkinson’s disease. And given that the VTA is a region involved in mood and motivation, acknowledging its involvement in the disease will help to focus more research attention on to those areas of functioning in Parkinson’s.