TGF-beta: The Parkinson’s superfamily?

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A lot of Parkinson’s research has focused on a neurotrophic factor called glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor (or GDNF).

But GDNF only represents a small fraction of a much larger class of neurotrophic factors, called the Transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β) superfamily.

Recently, researchers have been investigating some of the other TGF-β family members in preclinical models of Parkinson’s and they have been making some interesting discoveries.

In today’s post, we will discuss what is meant by neurotrophic factor, explore who else is in the TGF-β superfamily, and look at two recent reports highlighting family members in the context of Parkinson’s.

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Different types of cells in the brain. Source: Dreamstime

Glial cells are the support cells in the brain. While neurons are considered to be the ‘work horses’ of neurological function – passing messages and storing memories – glial cells are in the background making sure that neurons are protected and well nurtured.

There are different types of glial cells, including astrocytes, oligodendrocytes and microglia. And each type has a specific function, for example microglia are the brain’s resident immune cells checking up on the health of the neurons while oligodendrocytes provide the neurons with a protective covering (called myelin sheath) which also helps to speed up the signalling of neurons.

A human astrocyte. Source: Wikipedia

Astrocytes provide nutrients and neurotrophic factors to neurons and make sure the environment surrounding the neurons is balanced and supportive. Glial cells are absolutely critical to the normal functioning of the brain.

What are neurotrophic factors?

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