Fixing weak electric current in part of brain may treat Parkinson’s — Israeli lab

University of Haifa scientist says her peer-reviewed study could open up a new approach to fighting the disease, enable detection when people are young

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: a human brain (onimate via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image: a human brain (onimate via iStock by Getty Images)

Fixing weak electric currents in part of the brain may treat Parkinson’s, according to Israeli scientists.

They say their research, peer-reviewed and published in the journal NJP Parkinson’s Disease, could open up a new approach to fighting the disease and may enable detection when people are young.

A major difficulty in developing drugs for Parkinson’s is that though it’s referred to as a single disease, many scientists think of it as a term for numerous diseases with shared characteristics.

The genetic mutations underlying Parkinson’s have only been identified for around 15 percent of cases. As a result, scientists struggle to find common — or in medical jargon convergent — characteristics in the brains of Parkinson’s patients which could be targeted by drugs.

Dr. Shani Stern, a neurologist at the University of Haifa, found in a study that regardless of whether or not patients have an identified mutation, they all had a reduction in the rate of synaptic currents in specific parts of the brain compared to healthy people. These are specific currents generated under synapses, which are conductors between neurones.

Stern and her colleagues wrote in their study that the changes they identified in the brain “are central and convergent to Parkinson’s Disease.”

“We discovered mechanisms that are shared by all Parkinson’s cases we examined. These are mechanisms that weren’t known to be related to Parkinson’s, and now we have new targets for which drugs of the future could now be developed, which could make them more like healthy neurones,” she told The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image: neurones inside the human brain (onimate via iStock by Getty Images)

Now that her research has identified the connection between synaptic currents and Parkinson’s, she hopes for a new strategy to fight the disease. Drugs could be developed that return the currents to normal levels and through this change, potentially slow or reduce the onset of Parkinson’s.

The method for the study involved “reprogramming” brain cells to stem cells. Analysis was carried out on cells derived from the stem cells. This process allowed the scientists to see how the cells behave at different ages, and they made a stark discovery: the synaptic currents are reduced even when the cells are young.

Dr. Shani Stern of the University of Haifa (courtesy of Dr. Shani Stern)

Stern said that much more research is needed, but their findings raise the possibility that young people with a family history of Parkinson’s could have cells sequenced to reveal rates of synaptic currents. People who appear likely to develop the disease could potentially be given drugs to slow its development — either existing treatments or those released in the future.

“Our findings imply that the changes exist in Parkinson’s patients long before they are aware of a disease process that is occurring in their brain. If we perform this sequencing in a young person and find a similar picture to that found among people who have developed Parkinson’s disease, we can assume that this individual will develop the disease at a later stage,” she said.

“Currently, most of the treatments are intended to prevent the exacerbation of the disease rather than to prevent it. If we can identify the potential to develop Parkinson’s disease at an early stage and develop treatments that can halt the advancement of the disease, we will be able to start preventative treatment at a stage when the nerve cell mortality is limited. This will allow us to significantly slow down the progression of the disease.”

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