Targeting certain brain cells could be the answer to new Parkinson’s treatment

Researchers may have found a new way to treat Parkinson’s, by targeting cells of the brain affected by the disease.

The researchers from Imperial College London and Newcastle University worked with rats that had been treated to recreate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

They used a harmless virus to deliver a specially-designed genetic ‘switch’ to the cholinergic neurons in rats. The rats were then given a drug that was designed to activate the ‘switch’ and stimulate the target neurons.

Following the treatment the rats made an almost complete recovery and were able to move normally.

Scientists have suspected for a while that cholinergic neuron cells are involved in Parkinson’s disease. Studies of patients’ brains with Parkinson’s have shown about half of these cells have perished. The reason is currently unknown.

Dr Ilse Pienaar, Honorary Lecturer in Neuroscience at Imperial College London, said: “This study confirms that cholinergic neurons are key to the gait problems and postural instability experienced by advanced Parkinson’s disease patients.

“It also suggests that it’s possible to target those cells that remain to compensate for those that are no longer functioning effectively, possibly due to weak communication between nerve cells. If we can transfer this technique into people, we believe this could help patients regain mobility.

“At the moment, neurosurgeons are attempting to target specific areas with deep brain stimulation, but it is a blunt tool with correspondingly mixed results. We think we have found a way to target only the cholinergic neurons.”

The main symptoms of Parkinson’s are tremor, rigidity and slowness of movement.

Drugs are the main treatment used to manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s, while research into finding a cure continues. However, these have severe side-effects and can become ineffective after around five years.

The only treatment subsequently available to patients is deep brain stimulation, a surgical technique where an electrical current is used to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. This has mixed results.

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