Brazilian researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the United States have been able to determine, for the first time, exactly when Parkinson's begins to develop. The finding may help in early diagnosis of the disease and also in treatment.
Scientists already knew that Parkinson's – a progressive neurodegenerative disease – is linked to the accumulation in the brain of alpha-synuclein protein aggregates. Experts have now been able to identify the initial formation of these structures and how they spread throughout the brain. The work was published in "Communications Biology", a scientific journal of "Nature".
Currently, the diagnosis of the disease is clinical, made only long after the early stages of the disease, when the patient already has symptoms. Likewise, there is no definitive treatment for the problem, only palliative.
Therefore, understanding how these structures are organized is fundamental to identify the early stages of the disease. Before the alpha synuclein aggregates form, proteins pass through an intermediate stage, called oligomers.
"One person develops Parkinson's over a lifetime. The conversion between the different stages of the protein happens slowly and the intermediate structures and filaments build up in the brain for a long time. And we don't know which of the two triggers the onset of symptoms, nor which is the most toxic to cells, "explains researcher Guilherme de Oliveira of the University of Virginia, lead author of the study. "If we can understand the onset of this conversion, we can develop therapy for the early treatment of the disease."
Using state-of-the-art bioimaging techniques, researchers were able to observe these proteins in the laboratory and determine the relationship between the shape of these aggregates and their toxicity.
"Depending on the mutation present, these filaments twist in different ways," explains Jerson Lima Silva of UFRJ, coauthor of the work. "Usually, when the disease becomes evident and is diagnosed, many cells have already been destroyed. Having this target is important for us to develop treatment and also for early diagnosis."