A unique study by leading medical charity Action Research, has found a way of measuring inflammation in the brain in Parkinson’s Disease (PD) patients. Early detection of PD will enable doctors to develop treatments to delay its progression.
This inflammation involves the microglial cells which normally fight off infections but have recently been found to be associated with the death of essential dopamine producing cells in PD patients. Activation of these microglial cells may potentially accelerate the rate of disease progression in PD and other atypical Parkinsonian syndromes*.
The Action Research team based at the Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London, developed a ‘tracer’ - a mildly radioactive chemical that binds to the microglial cells in the brain when they are active and inflamed. Using Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanning these doctors were able to see how active the condition is. This technique has not been used in PD in this way before now and is currently only available at a few specialised centres.
Parkinson’s Disease is caused by lack of dopamine producing cells in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain and its release faciltates smooth movements of the body. Lack of it causes muscle tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement, slurred speech and impassive facial expression. Dopamine is made in two particular parts of the brain** and is distributed to most other parts of the brain by a network of nerves. It helps control thought processes as well as movement.
Early signs of Parkinson’s disease include a tremor in the arm or leg or stiffening and general slowing of movement. In atypical cases the patient may suffer with early fainting attacks, slurring of speech or falls.
Simon Moore, Chief Executive of Action Research said: “This is a really excellent find. Parkinson’s Disease is a devastating condition so if this technique can be used to detect the inflammation early, and allow preventative measures to be taken to slow its progression, that would be a tremendous result.”
Professor David Brooks the lead researcher said: “We are very pleased with our results. Inflammation in the brain may be causing this already debilitating condition to worsen at a quicker rate than it would otherwise. By detecting it in the early stages of the disease we hope to be able to give patients suitable treatments that will delay its development. We hope that it would even allow some of the damaged cells to produce the much needed dopamine again which would really help the patient.”
The researchers scanned a group of 60 patients in the early stages of parkinsonism to measure their level of brain inflammation. They are now being rescanned between six months and 2 years later to see how far the disease has progressed and whether the inflammation has worsened.
Additionally, major drug trials where PD patients are treated with an anti-inflammatory drug are underway to assess the clinical effects of anti-inflammatory treatment of this disorder. The group hopes that by stopping the inflammation in the brain the rate at which the disease progresses will be reduced. This will not replace the lost dopamine but it is thought that reducing the inflammation will enable the damaged cells to start to produce dopamine again.
Parkinson’s Disease affects around 120,000 people in the UK. The condition usually occurs in people over the age of 50 and the risk increases with age although some people under the age of 40 are diagnosed. Around 10,000 people are diagnosed each year and, of these, one in 20 will be under the age of 40. It is estimated that worldwide there are four million people who have Parkinson’s.
*Such as multiple system atrophy and progressive supranuclear palsy. **substantia nigra and midbrain tegmentum
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