Parkinson's disease: Does it start in the gut?

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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New evidence from a mouse study supports the notion that Parkinson’s disease could start in the gut. Image credit: Westend61/Getty Images.
  • Researchers from Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City recently conducted a study in mice to see if they could find out more about how Parkinson’s disease and changes in the gut are connected.
  • Parkinson’s disease causes neurological changes that affect motor skills and may eventually lead to losing the ability to walk.
  • The researchers suspected that a protein connected with Parkinson’s impacts people via the gut, years before they show hallmark symptoms of the disease.
  • The scientists created an injection to administer to two groups of mice — one group was regular and the other was engineered to have similar genetic factors as humans in terms of developing Parkinson’s disorder.
  • They suspected that the engineered mice would respond to the injection by exhibiting gastrointestinal symptoms, as people with Parkinson’s disease may experience.

While researchers know Parkinson’s disease affects the brain, they wonder whether it is possible that instead of the disease originating in the brain, it starts in the gut by way of an immune system response.

Some studies show a link between the gut microbiome and Parkinson’s. Researchers from Columbia University have now expanded on this line of research in a new study, which appears in the journal Neuron.

After giving both groups of mice the injection they believed would trigger an immune system response — and thus gastrointestinal symptoms — the group of mice with human traits not only experienced constipation but also had nerve cell damage in their guts.

The researchers want to continue this line of research and see if they can eventually detect damage in the brain as well.

Parkinson’s disease, a type of movement disorder, can cause nerve cells to degenerate. When this happens, people with the disease may experience stiffness, tremors, shaking, and other uncontrollable movements.

Doctors diagnose the disease after ruling out other physiological causes for symptoms.

Before experiencing movement difficulties, there are other symptoms that people would not necessarily connect with Parkinson’s disease.

According to the existing research, in this phase of the disease, people may experience some of the following issues:

  • REM sleep behavior disorder
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • constipation.

According to the study authors, many people who develop Parkinson’s report experiencing constipation and other gastrointestinal symptoms up to 20 years prior to developing motor symptoms.

“Constipation presents in approximately 70% of Parkinson’s disease patients,” report the authors.

Dr. Pooja Patel spoke with Medical News Today about the study. Dr. Patel is a neurologist at Boca Raton Regional Hospital located in Boca Raton, FL, and was not involved in the recent research.

Dr. Patel emphasized the importance of learning more about how the gut is connected to Parkinson’s.

“As scientists and researchers of the disease, we can more closely focus our efforts on studying the gut of these patients at a cellular level,” commented Dr. Patel.

“We can study the bacteria that are found in the gut of [Parkinson’s disease] patients and see what different types exist,” Dr. Patel continued. “We can juxtapose those bacteria with the bacteria found in people that do not have Parkinson’s and try to isolate them.”

Dr. Patel explained that they can look for genetic diseases and mutations and “may be able to someday identify which gut bacteria are solely responsible for the inflammation or genetic mutations that result in Parkinson’s disease.”

“This could result in the development of immunosuppressant medications that might lower the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. We could also develop dietary recommendations or nutritional supplements that might improve the health of the gut and thereby lessen the presence of the bacteria that are responsible for causing Parkinson’s or even other diseases.”

– Dr. Pooja Patel

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