New discovery could influence future Parkinson’s treatments

A recent discovery that suggests Parkinson’s disease is preceded by a period where healthy regions of the brain take over the functions of damaged ones could someday aid in early detection of Parkinson’s.

A recent study was conducted by neurologist Bart Van Nuenen and involved people that were clinically considered healthy and free from Parkinson’s disease manifestations, but who had a genetic predisposition towards Parkinson’s.

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Parkinson’s disease is the result of the dying of brain cells that produce dopamine. The physical manifestations of Parkinson’s — tremors, rigidity and slow movement — do not occur until 50 to 70 percent of these dopamine-producing cells are dead.

Previously, it was uncertain why the disease took so long after onset to manifest into physical symptoms. For Van Nuenen’s study he examined

These groups allowed for a study of the preclinical phase of Parkinson’s, conducted with the aid of MRI scanners for functional brain research (fMRI scanners). During the study, test subjects were asked to perform various tasks while an fMRI of their brain was done. A control group of individuals who do not have a history of disease in their family was also tested. The findings were that both groups were clinically healthy and both performed the test comparatively well.

The difference, however, showed up on the MRI scans. The brain activity of the group predisposed to Parkinson’s differed from the control group. There was enhanced activity in the extrastriate body area of the brain — a region that remains unaffected in later stages of Parkinson’s. It seemed that this brain area was compensating for declining functions of other areas of the brain affected by the disease. This is the reason that the predisposed test subject could still move normally and suppress Parkinson’s symptoms.

Van Neunen sought to conclusively prove that the overactive portion of the brain contributes to compensation of the disease by also conducting an experiment using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS was used to temporarily deactivate the compensating portion of the brain. When this portion of the brain was deactivated, Parkinson’s patients were unable to perform a series of hand movements correctly. The same test performed on a healthy control group did not have the same effect.

The test showed that it’s likely that during the preclinical phase compensation occurs and delays the clinical manifestation of Parkinson’s disease. Van Neunun believes that this discovery will lead to new treatments for Parkinson’s, which currently focus on increasing dopamine. With the new evidence treatments can possibly be developed that focus on therapy focusing on stimulating the compensation mechanism in the brain.

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