Auckland brain researchers show how Parkinson’s spreads

24 February 2017
Image of Associate Professor Maurice Curtis
Associate Professor Maurice Curtis

Researchers at the University of Auckland have provided the first strong evidence on how Parkinson’s disease spreads in the brain, helping to advance treatment of the disease.

In a paper, published today in Scientific Reports – Nature, the study revealed that pathological proteins (known as Lewy bodies) in Parkinson’s disease could be spread from cell to cell.

“This theory of Parkinson’s disease spread is topical, but here we have the first proof in cell culture of the mechanism controlling the spread,” says Associate Professor Maurice Curtis from the University’s Centre for Brain Research, who leads the Centre’s research on Parkinson’s disease.

“The implication is that if there is a spread of the Lewy bodies in the brain then the spread could be stopped early on,” he says. “This new mechanism of pathology spread provides us with new targets to go after for development of Parkinson’s disease treatments.

“The traditional way of thinking about Parkinson’s was that there was a susceptible area in the brain and if you could fix that area then the next most susceptible area would soon be affected,” says Dr Curtis. “But if the Parkinson’s disease pathology spreads then it may be possible to stop it in its tracks.

“The mechanism that cells use to spread the Lewy bodies is via structures called tunneling nanotubes that act like conduits between two cells through which large proteins can pass.

“Our work also demonstrated that non-neuronal cells, in this case cells in the blood vessels called pericytes, appear to harbour and spread the Lewy bodies rather than just the neurons,” says Dr Curtis.

“Most literature suggests that Lewy bodies cause the most problems in neurons but this paper proposes blood vessel pericytes to be significant.”

Dr Curtis says, “this has been a major push in my laboratory and I am proud of this work by our team, including post-doctoral researcher and lead author, Dr Victor Dieriks.

“This vital work was funded by the Neuro Research Charitable Trust founded by Bernie and Kaye Crosby who have fund-raised to support this work and who have been strong advocates for Parkinson’s disease research in New Zealand,” he says.

“This work was also made possible because of the availability of human brain cells cultured postmortem from those who donate their brain to advance research, provided by the Centre’s Human Brain Bank,” says Dr Curtis.

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