Parkinson’s: Where does it Begin?
New research suggests that the neurological disorder Parkinson’s disease may begin in the gut. Scientists believe proteins that play a key role in the condition can spread to the brain from the gastrointestinal tract.
The condition has many early symptoms; including tremors, particularly in the fingers, hands and feet; uncontrollable movement when sleeping; limb stiffness and slow movements; changes in the voice; a rigid facial expression; and a stooped posture.
It can be difficult to detect and diagnose Parkinson’s at the beginning, as some of the symptoms may only occur spasmodically and they may not necessarily seem connected.
How does Parkinson’s begin?
Our brain cells (neurons) control movement. They produce a substance called dopamine, but when the neurons die and the level of dopamine begins to decrease, this reduction is believed to result in the symptoms of Parkinson’s that affect the way people move.
As the disease progresses, the main symptoms become more pronounced. Tremors in the hands and arms are more likely to happen when the limb is resting and relaxed, while physical movements become much slower, making everyday tasks difficult. As a result, people with Parkinson’s may develop a slow, shuffling gait, taking small steps.
The muscle rigidity is likely to worsen and make it more difficult to move around. This can cause painful muscle cramps, known as dystonia.
There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s, but some treatments are available to relieve the symptoms and maintain as high a quality of life as possible. There are also supportive therapies available, including physiotherapy, while medication and in some cases surgery can help some people.
Scientists are continually working on trying to understand the disease better as they try to find a cure. The latest research suggests the link between Parkinson’s and bacteria in the gut.
A protein called alpha-synuclein is formed naturally in the human body. It is found in the brain in the nerve cell endings, but forms of this protein can clump together and are linked to nerve cell damage, a decline in the dopamine system and the onset of problems with speech and movement – key symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
The latest research backs up long-held theories that abnormally formed alpha-synuclein in the gut could spread via the vagus nerve to the brain. The nerve comprises a group of fibres in the brainstem which transport signals to and from several of the body’s organs, such as the gut.
Professor of neurology, Ted Dawson, of the Johns Hopkins University school of medicine in the United States, is co-author of the new research. He says it supports the theory that Parkinson’s disease can start in the gut and provides the first experimental evidence of this theory.
However, the results of the research are by no means 100% conclusive, as the mystery remains why some people have the abnormal protein in their brain but do not have any symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The other mystery is how and why alpha-synuclein is misfolded in the first place.
The charity Parkinson’s UK has cautiously welcomed the results of the study. Research manager Dr Beckie Port said it built on previous studies and added support to earlier research, although the gut wasn’t believed to be the only place where the condition might begin.
Scientists hope that by identifying these changes before they reach the brain they can be halted. The research aims to prevent the majority of Parkinson’s symptoms from appearing, improving the quality of life of people who will be affected.
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