Someone in the US receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease every 8.9 minutes, asserts the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Unfortunately, researchers have yet to find to a cure for Parkinson’s disease (PD). However, new studies and the use of 3D-mapping technologies are enabling better identification of PD-causing proteins. As a result, this innovation represents a major breakthrough in the ongoing battle against PD.
Chemists at the University of Illinois, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, and the Queen Mary University of London released a detailed report and mapping of the alpha-synuclein (α-syn) protein in the journal, Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, reports Neuroscience News. This protein is fundamental in the formation of brain-disrupting fibrils, which result in the symptoms of PD, within the brain.
Previously, researchers were unable to identify the presence of α-syn in diagnostic imagery due to its complexity. In this study, chemists used magic-angle spinning nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (MASN MRI) to determine the distance between atoms in six samples of α-syn. After determining these finite points, researchers searched for similar patterns that emerged from different tissue samples. However, the identification of these distances is not enough to generate the model.
Chemistry follows a set of scientific laws. Certain elements cannot bond with specific ends of other elements, and only certain types of elements can bond in extenuating circumstances. For example, some alloys are made by heating different materials and combining them at an appropriate temperature. In this discovery, researchers had to determine what parts of the molecule could bond with known atoms within the molecule.
As atoms within the molecule interact, the polarity of atoms and binding sites result in a geometric structure, which can then be plotted in a 3D graphic with the help of advanced-computational systems.
Impact on Identification of PD
Traditional senior caregiver continuing education programs have been resigned to a “guessing” model for identification of PD. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the diagnosis of PD is based solely on analysis of a person’s medical history and a neurological examination. Unfortunately, the symptoms of PD may mirror the common effects of aging, such as fatigue, weakness, or arthritic tremors.
A person’s healthcare provider, who may be an internist or other practitioner, is often charged with this analysis. Diagnostic imagery and other laboratory tests may be ordered to rule out other conditions. At this point, the provider may diagnosis the person with PD. However, the diagnosis is simply an educated guess, and many may forgo treatment for this reason.
Knowing the structure of α-syn offers the most hope in diagnosing PD. A diagnostic agent, such as a dye, could be created to attach to the α-syn protein with this knowledge. As a result, the presence of α-syn would become evident in diagnostic imagery, such as a CT scan. This would eliminate the possibility of misdiagnosis and hasten treatment.
Impact of Findings on Treatment
Medications are often used to manage the symptoms of PD, but the combination of medications changes as the disease progresses. Most of these medications focus on replenishing dopamine levels in the brain. One of the medications, levodopa, has shown promise in treating 75 percent of those with PD. In 2006, a newer medication, rasagiline, was approved for the treatment of advanced and early PD. However, the uncertainty in diagnosing PD left many out of the loop for use of this medication.
Surgery and therapy, such as deep brain stimulation (DBS), have also been used if PD does not respond to medications. In DBS, electrodes are surgically implanted throughout the brain. Connected to a small pulse generator, these electrodes help to reduce the symptoms of PD, explains MedlinePlus. Unfortunately, the guessing game of PD continues during the placement of these electrodes.
If researchers can identify what parts of the brain have active α-syn deposition, the electrodes could theoretically be placed more accurately. This would allow for better management of symptoms. Since surgical options are used solely as a last resort, the greatest impact on treatment of PD will focus on stopping the depletion of dopamine in those with PD.
When considering how identification of α-syn could impact testing for PD, the treatment expands to include preventative screenings. Senior caregiver continuing education could stress the importance of screenings for PD and Alzheimer’s disease concurrently. Therefore, those with a predisposition to PD, such as a known family history of PD or other neurological disorders, could undergo PD-screening via diagnostic imagery earlier before any symptoms appear.
The implications of the mapping of the structure of alpha-synuclein are profound. From early identification of Parkinson’s to the development of better treatment options, the structure of alpha-synuclein is one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine. As a result, senior caregiver training will change, and the burden of recognizing Parkinson’s early could dissolve with a simple brain scan. Until then, caregivers must be weary of the disease.