Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, degenerative brain disease that causes trembling, stiffness, slowness of movement and a loss of fine motor control.
The disease destroys neurons in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra. Without these dopamine-producing cells, the brain’s ability to control movement is progressively reduced.
At Neuroscience Research Australia, we are conducting research to improve diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that cause the disease.
Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are caused by a gradual deterioration and death of brain cells in the substantia nigra. However, people with Parkinson’s can lose up to 70% of susceptible brain cells and go on for many years before symptoms become noticeable.
While symptoms vary from person to person, the most well-known symptom is a tremor. People with Parkinson’s disease may also experience slowness of movement, stiffness, a loss of automatic movements such as blinking and smiling, changes in speech and, in the later stages of the disease, dementia.
While no one currently knows what causes brain cells to die in Parkinson’s disease, we do know that some factors increase your risk of developing this disorder. These factors include older age, living in a rural environment, being a non-smoker and exposure to some herbicides and pesticides.
Although in rare cases Parkinson's disease can be inherited, the vast majority of cases of Parkinson's disease are not. Nevertheless, having a family history of Parkinson’s can increase the risk of developing it, probably though genes that increase vulnerability to this disorder.
It is currently thought that Parkinson's disease results from a complex interaction between many factors, some of which are inherited and some of which are environmental.
Because much of the damage to the brain in Parkinson’s disease occurs over several years before symptoms become noticeable, early diagnosis is a critical issue, particularly as more effective treatments become available.
Lead by Assoc Prof Kay Double, we are currently developing several methods to diagnose Parkinson’s disease earlier than is currently possible, including a novel blood test and a technique using ultrasound to identify a change in the appearance of the substantia nigra.
We are also looking at why specific cells are more vulnerable to death in Parkinson’s disease, the role of copper in Parkinson’s disease, and the regulation of an enzyme involved in dopamine production.
We are conducting research to gain a better understanding of the formation of new neurons in healthy ageing. Such knowledge is important for current research which aims to develop novel therapeutic approaches for neurodegenerative disease based upon stimulating the formation of or transplanting new neurons into the human brain.
The disease progresses at different rates and in different patterns in each person. Lead by Prof Glenda Halliday, we are determining whether genetic factors contribute to these differences. In particular, we are looking at a gene called LRRK2, which has been identified as causing Parkinson's disease in some people. Our research is identifying the proteins that interact with LRRK2 to cause Parkinson's disease. These proteins may be amenable to future therapeutic manipulation.
To access our latest research papers on Parkinson's disease, visit PubMed.