Since mitochondria, often referred to as the ‘powerhouse of the cell’, perform so many critical functions, mitochondrial dysfunction is the root cause of hundreds of other diseases, including Parkinson’s. The Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research (WCMR) at Newcastle University has a dedicated team led by Dr Amy Reeve and Dr Gavin Hudson who investigate the involvement of mitochondria in Parkinson’s and use this to identify new diagnostic and treatment strategies for the condition. In this research blog, Dr Amy Reeve discusses the connection between mitochondria and Parkinson’s and the vital research funded by Parkinson’s UK that is being carried out by the WCMR team.
What is Parkinson’s?
Parkinson’s is caused by the death of brain cells in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. It was first described by James Parkinson’s in the 19th Century. However, we still do not know what causes Parkinson’s and are unable to predict who will go on to develop the condition later in life.
Most people with Parkinson’s experience a tremor, problems with movement and changes in their posture and mobility. It mostly affects people over the age of 60, though there are forms of the condition which are inherited through families and which affect people earlier on in life. People with Parkinson’s also may experience problems with sleeping, gastrointestinal problems, changes to their mental health and changes to their sense of smell, to name a few. Everyone with Parkinson’s will have a different experience of the condition, no two people’s symptoms are the same. It is a debilitating and disabling condition. Much of the research that is currently being undertaken looks to find out the causes of Parkinson’s, ways to predict who will be affected later in life and new treatments.
What happens in Parkinson’s?
The most common symptoms of Parkinson’s are caused by the death of brain cells in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. This part of the brain helps to support our movements. By the time a person receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, 70-80% of the brain cells will have already been lost in this part of the brain. Although many cells die in Parkinson’s, some remain and these often contain sticky, build ups of a protein called alpha-synuclein.
Even though we do not currently know what causes Parkinson’s, over the years many researchers have identified changes which may lead to the death of brain cells. One of these changes is a loss of function of the mitochondria. Mitochondria are found in most of the cells of our bodies and are responsible for producing the energy our cells need to work correctly. Brain cells need a lot of energy to communicate with each other and to allow our brains to work correctly. A loss of energy will lead to a loss of function and the death of brain cells.
Why is mitochondrial research important?
Our research aims to understand how a loss of function in the mitochondria causes brain cell loss. We use cutting edge technologies to examine how well the mitochondria work in the brain cells affected by Parkinson’s. We have shown that in Parkinson’s the mitochondria become faulty due to a loss of components in the machinery that controls how they produce energy. We also know that faulty mitochondria cannot be recycled in brain cells in Parkinson’s which means that they accumulate and have a big impact.
Brain cells rely on other cells to provide them with nutrients and support their functions. One of these other cell types are called astrocytes. Astrocytes keep our brain cells healthy and respond to changes in their function. We have recently shown that they also contain faulty mitochondria which might prevent them from helping brain cells. This might also lead to brain cell loss in Parkinson’s.
We are looking at how brain cells might try to respond to problems with energy production in the mitochondria in a project that is funded by Parkinson’s UK. Could they switch to a different way of producing energy? We think that in Parkinson’s this ability to switch might be lost, which means that the brain cells die. The exciting thing about this project is that we might be able to detect theses changes in the blood of people with Parkinson’s even at the earliest stages of the disease. A test for a chemical called acylcarnitine, might also allow us to be able to predict which people with Parkinson’s might go on to develop dementia.
Parkinson’s affects 145,000 people in the UK.
Every hour 2 people receive a new diagnosis of Parkinson’s
1 in 37 people alive today in the UK will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s in their lifetime.
Without research, there will never be hope for a cure. Let’s work together to find one.