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June 26, 2019

New study identifies gut-brain connection in development of Parkinson's

A protein that causes the disease apparently travels via the vagus nerve, researchers say

Illness Parkinson's Disease
10092018_brain_Flickr digitalbob8/via Flickr Creative Commons


Gut health is a major focus of many health studies of late. Some have found that certain bacteria in the gut can prevent food allergies in infants, while others have found that lupus, an autoimmune disease, could be tied to an "abnormal mix of bacteria" in the gut.

This area of study has even inspired researchers to name the scientific study of poop.

Now, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have reportedly found evidence that Parkinson's disease can be traced from cells in the gut, which travel through body's neurons to the brain.

RELATED READ: Parkinson's may no longer be a matter of opinion

The research on mice was published Wednesday in the journal Neuron, and offers a more accurate alternative for burgeoning treatments that could one day prevent or limit the progression of the disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a nervous system disorder that progressively affects a person’s movement, often resulting in tremors, according to Mayo Clinic. It is marked by a collection of misfolded protein, called alpha-synuclein, in the cells of the brain, according to the study. 

This study builds off of research from 2003 that suggested a possible brain-gut connection in development of Parkinson’s. For the current study, researchers set out to see if the misfolded alpha-synuclein protein could travel through the vagus nerve, which runs from the stomach and small intestine to the base of the brain.

Researchers tested the travel capabilities of the protein by injecting a synthetic version into the guts of 12 healthy mice. Over the 10-month study, researchers tested the brain tissue of the mice four times and saw evidence that the synthetic alpha-synuclein began to build up around the vagus nerve and spread to all parts of the brain, according to the research.

A similar experiment was then conducted by surgically cutting the vagus nerve in a group of mice, which were then injected with the synthetic protein. Researchers found the severed nerve prevented the spread of the protein.

Researchers then wanted to see if the change in disease progression would result in any behavioral changes by observing mice at tasks which typically signify Parkinson’s in the rodent. They also tested the mice to measure their anxiety levels by tracking how they responded to new environments.

Researchers believe that blocking off the transmission via the nerve could be a method of preventing Parkinson’s disease, with the next step of determining where in the brain the misfolded protein can spread via the vagus nerve.

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