Up until recently, scientists only knew that as Parkinson’s disease progresses so do all of its symptoms, particularly around memory loss. They also knew that as many as 30% of Parkinson’s sufferers develop dementia. What they didn’t know was why or, really how they treat it in patients.
For patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease the unknown becomes a fact of life. Every patient is different and every patient will have different symptoms at different times. Sometimes, Parkinson's symptoms may even start early on in a patient's life rather than later. For many years, studies have been done to try and explain the cause of Parkinson’s disease, its symptoms and how it affects patients. Some people develop tremors while others lose their sense of smell. Dizziness and fainting spells will plague some Parkinson's disease sufferers and others would be surprised to see that their handwriting will shrink.
What patients do know is that at some point in the progression of their disease they will tremble, lose their balance and require the use of either a cane or even a wheelchair. When a patient is diagnosed, they know that their day-to-day life and that of their families will change. They will need to learn to adapt and hope that every new discovery and clinical study will lead to more treatment options for them and even answers.
All of the effects and symptoms of Parkinson’s are life altering. However, one of the most devastating aspects of Parkinson’s disease is the cognitive deficiencies that results in some patients forgetting their loved ones and some of their most beloved memories. For some patients, as the disease progresses, so do their capabilities to recognize people, recall loved ones or even remember what they had for breakfast that day.
A recent discovery of a protein interaction in the brain has helped explain this devastating symptom and could clear a path to help discover new treatments for Parkinson's disease.
So, what exactly is protein?
Before understanding what a protein interaction is, it’s best to get a clear idea of what a protein actually is. Protein is what makes and replaces organ and muscular tissues in the body. Protein is responsible for growing our body's muscles, hair, organs and nails. The immune system that protects the body from disease and things like the common cold is made-up mainly by protein. Protein is also used to make-up part of the red-blood cells that transport oxygen to all parts of the body.
The body is capable of creating 13 different proteins on its own, but requires up to 22 different proteins to actually function. The remaining 8 are created through the food that the body digests.
A good way to think about this is to picture a necklace made from fresh water pearls, every pearl has its own unique shape. If all of these different shapes were amino acids, strung together like a pearl necklace, they would create a protein. The body is essentially made-up of a bunch of different necklaces.
Sometimes, these necklaces get tangled together and this results in an interaction of proteins. While many times, protein interactions are harmless or even a good thing, once in a while an interaction occurs that can bring some devastating results to patients.
Proteins and Dementia
Dementia and other cognitive deficiencies has long been a fascinating subject for study. Scientist has been working for years to try and figure out why some people lose their memory and how to treat it, how to prevent it, and even how to predict it.
A study from a few years ago found that certain forms of a protein called alpha-synuclein - not necessarily a well-understood protein found mainly in the brain and plays a key role for normal brain function - could cause issues with circuits that carry messages to the memory formation of the brain. In other words, a bad protein can impair the memory part of the brain - this is often found in patients with dementia.
What is the cause of memory loss for those with Parkinson's?
Some patients who are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease end-up with dementia. As the disease progresses so does their memory loss. These patients are often found to have an abnormal form of Parkinson’s that is associated with the protein alpha-synuclein.
A recent study has uncovered that a newly found interaction between the alpha-synuclein and the prion protein - this protein is often found in diseased brains - is what triggers the cognitive deficiencies or, memory loss similar to those with PD.
What does this mean?
Well the good news is that the discovery that causes memory loss in Parkinson’s patients can lead to the discovery of how to treat it. While studies have not been done on humans as of yet, scientist have been able to do some work with animals. For example, an experiment using a mouse with Parkinson’s and human proteins showed a reversal of potential memory loss. This was done by blocking the interaction of the alpha-synuclein protein and prion protein by introducing a caffeine analogue - or rather, the molecules that make-up caffeine. This is huge as it suggests that something as simple as the molecules found in caffeine could fight against memory loss.
What are the next steps?
Currently treatments for Parkinson’s disease only have an effect on some of the motor symptoms that effect patients. While some patients are prescribed anti-depressants to help with the anxiety and fear around dealing with the disease many other symptoms, particularly around cognitive abilities are unfortunately not treatable.
This protein discovery will start a new chapter in the study of Parkinson’s disease and its symptoms and will continue to help uncover not only the causes of the symptoms, but also how to treat them.
New discoveries also lead the way to uncovering new therapies, treatments and hopefully one day being able to predict and prevent the onset of debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s.