Parkinson's Disease: Proteins in Migration

05/28/2013
Photo: A neuronal fiber

A neuronal fiber stained for human alpha-synuclein in the rostral rat brain. The swellings are caused by accumu-
lation of alpha-synuclein; © DZNE

Scientists at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) in Bonn have developed a new animal model that provides important clues on the mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease.

In Parkinson’s disease, the protein “alpha-synuclein” aggregates and accumulates within neurons. Specific areas of the brain become progressively affected as the disease develops and advances. The mechanism underlying this pathological progression is poorly understood but could result from spreading of the protein (or abnormal forms of it) along nerve projections connecting lower to upper brain regions.

The scientists headed by Professor Donato Di Monte have developed a novel experimental model that reproduces for the first time this pattern of alpha-synuclein brain spreading and provides important clues on the mechanisms underlying this pathological process. They triggered the production of human alpha-synuclein in the lower rat brain and were able to trace the spreading of this protein toward higher brain regions. The new experimental paradigm could promote the development of ways to halt or slow down disease development in humans.

In a small percentage of cases, Parkinson’s disease is due to genetic abnormalities carried within families. For the vast majority of patients, however, the cause of the disease remains unknown; the development of this sporadic form of the disease is likely promoted by both environmental and genetic risk factors. An intriguing characteristic of the brain of patients with sporadic Parkinson’s disease is the progressive accumulation of intraneuronal inclusions that were first described by a German neurologist, Friedrich Lewy, and are therefore called Lewy bodies.

“A major discovery in the late 90’s was that Lewy bodies are formed when the protein alpha-synuclein becomes aggregated,” says Di Monte. “Since then, it was also found that aggregates of alpha-synuclein are progressively accumulated within the patients’ brains during the course of the disease”.

Pathology studies from human brains show that the deposits usually start forming in the lower part of the brain, in an area named “medulla oblongata”. In subsequent disease stages, alpha-synuclein aggregates are observed in progressively higher (more rostral) brain regions, including the midbrain and cortical areas.

“This spreading appears to follow a typical pattern based on anatomical connections between regions of the brain,” says the neuroscientist. “For this reason, it has been hypothesized that alpha-synuclein or abnormal forms of it can be transferred between two interconnected neurons and hence migrate throughout the brain. But until now, there was no way of targeting the medulla oblongata to reproduce this spreading of alpha-synuclein in the laboratory. It is also unclear what conditions could trigger the inter-neuronal passage of the protein or its aggregates. We have now developed a new experimental paradigm which enables investigations on these fundamental issues.”

MEDICA.de; Source: German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE)