One of the last measures of defense used against Parkinson's is deep brain stimulation aimed at amping up nerve cells in the brain. But the treatment method is imprecise and has an erratic and often limited impact on patients.
Researchers at Imperial College London and Newcastle University, though, say they were able to target a particular set of brain cells with a new therapy that demonstrated real promise for eventually treating Parkinson's. They decided to concentrate on cholinergic neurons, believing them to be central to the disease process.
To test their theory, the scientists first developed a rodent model for the disease, using a viral vector to introduce a "switch" that was then flipped on with a drug. The rats in the study recovered completely, regaining their mobility, and the researchers say they want to move toward clinical trials to see if the same approach could work in humans. The results were published in Molecular Neurodegeneration.
"This study confirms that cholinergic neurons are key to the gait problems and postural instability experienced by advanced Parkinson's disease patients," said Imperial's Dr. Ilse Pienaar. "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."
"This paper will help us understand how deep-brain stimulation works, but more importantly it is a step towards offering less invasive treatment options to patients with Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative disorders," added Joanna Elson at the Institute of Genetic Medicine at Newcastle University.
Obviously, though, there's a long way to go before any new treatment based on this approach could become available. The researchers estimated that a full development program could take 5 to 10 years to complete.