Research Brings Hope for the Future
Although doctors have developed effective treatments for Parkinson’s disease, many patients eventually stop responding to therapy, and a true cure remains elusive. But with continued funding from the National Institutes of Health and other groups, scientists can refine their understanding of what causes the disease and develop new ways of combating it.
People who have family members with Parkinson’s have an increased risk of developing the disease, but the relationship is not straightforward. New screening tools and techniques, however, are helping scientists unravel the complex web of genetic factors that can contribute to Parkinson’s and identify potential new drug targets.
Researchers have already found that changes in genes responsible for recycling proteins within cells for the function of mitochondria, the cell’s energy factories, and for cell communication, can all help lead to Parkinson’s. For other genetic risk factors, neither the normal function of the gene nor the effect of a mutated form is known. Nevertheless, these discoveries may lead to gene therapies, in which corrected forms of the mutant genes are spliced into cells to manage or cure a disease. They also may lead to blood tests or other ways of detecting the likelihood of someone developing Parkinson’s disease.
Several studies suggest that Parkinson’s strikes more often in developed countries and in people living in certain places or with certain jobs. This has led to a search for environmental factors and toxic substances that contribute to Parkinson’s. Scientists, for instance, are studying whether certain pesticides and other chemicals affect mitochondrial function, killing off dopamine-producing cells, as well as whether certain antioxidants can protect against this effect.
In another strategy, scientists are testing whether they can replace the brain cells that die off in Parkinson’s altogether. Such treatments involve transplants of functional dopamine-producing cells or cells that spur the growth of new, healthy neurons.
In the meantime, work continues on deep brain stimulation and other surgical techniques. Because stimulating adjacent regions can have vastly different effects, researchers are attempting to better map and understand the complex brain circuits that intersect with the substantia nigra. They also are tweaking the physical devices used, as well as the frequency and strength of the electrical pulses delivered.
Hope for Other Diseases
Parkinson’s is one of several diseases with a similar modus operandi: the slow, gradual death of specific clusters of brain cells. Some studies have suggested that a common mechanism — such as accumulation of clusters of misfolded proteins or excess inflammation — may underlie all of these disorders, which include Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. Continued research into Parkinson’s disease may therefore shed light on many of the most common and devastating brain diseases.