Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that typically strikes as individuals age. It arises from the death of brain cells in a few areas of the brain, like the substantia nigra. The brain cells affected by Parkinson’s disease release dopamine, the chemical messenger that helps to regulate emotional responses, movement, and other functions. As the disease progresses, the levels of dopamine produced in the brain decrease and symptoms like tremors, slowness, stiffness, and impaired balance, gradually worsen, making it difficult to walk, talk, live independently, and have a normal life.
A new study published in the journal Current Biology explains Parkinson’s as a, “result of an energy crisis in brain cells that have unusually high energy needs in order to control movement. The crisis causes the cells to overheat and burn themselves out.” The study’s lead researcher, Louis-Éric Trudeau is a professor in pharmacology and neurosciences, who has spent the last 17 years studying the part of the brain that causes Parkinson’s disease, as well as schizophrenia and addiction. Trudeau says, “like a motor constantly running at high speed, thee neurons need to produce an incredible amount of energy to function. They appear to exhaust themselves and die prematurely.” Trudeau hopes that the study’s findings will produce better ways to represent Parkinson’s in animal models and develop new treatments. So far, it has been incredibly difficult for researchers to reproduce symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in mice, even with human genes.
The study’s team is already pursuing a way to create drugs that help brain cells reduce their energy consumption and be energy efficient to reduce the damage they accumulate over time. The team has investigated why mitochondria inside cells in the areas of the brain affected by Parkinson’s work so hard and overheat. They have since discovered that, “the cells in these brain areas have very complex structures with lots of branches and sites where the chemical messengers are released, and suggest it is this complexity that demands high levels of energy.” Trudeau supports the idea that, “these complex neurons force their mitochondria to work at burnout rates to meet their energy demands, which would explain their accelerated deterioration.” He explains, “to use the analogy of a motor, a car that overheats will burn significantly more fuel, and, not surprisingly, end up at the garage more often.”
The fact that Parkinson’s affects older populations presents some complications, since as we age, the complexity of these cells may also make them particularly vulnerable. Trudeau notes that, “as life expectancy increases, so does the challenge to find treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s since from an evolutionary standpoint, some of our neurons are perhaps just not programmed to last 80, 90, or 100 years, as we are seeing more and more. It’s to be expected that certain parts of our body are less able to withstand the effects of time.”
Researchers and scientists like Trudeau are still optimistic though, that because Parkinson’s disease only affects a limited part of the brain, effective treatments will be found sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you or someone you love is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and your family is looking for ways to manage their symptoms and learn about available options, call your doctor at the Medical Alliance of Southern New Jersey today.