Signs of Parkinson Disease May Be Seen in the Gut

Dr. Kathleen M. Shannon

Two studies by neurological researchers at Rush University Medical Center suggest that, in the future, colonic tissue obtained during either colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy may be used to predict who will develop Parkinson disease, a neurodegenerative disorder of aging that that leads to progressive deterioration of motor function due to loss of neurons in the brain that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter essential to executing movement.

The studies, published in the two May issues of the journal Movement Disorders, were conducted by Dr. Kathleen M. Shannon, a neurologist in the Movement Disorders and Parkinson’s Center at Rush, and a multidisciplinary team of scientists at Rush.

Currently, Parkinson disease afflicts almost 5 million people worldwide. It is projected that by 2030, Parkinson disease will affect over 10 million individuals.

A protein called alpha-synuclein is deposited in cells of the brain of patients with Parkinson’s disease and is considered a pathologic hallmark of the disorder.  These protein aggregates form Lewy bodies, a characteristic structure seen in Parkinson’s disease brains at autopsy. Identification of the role of alpha-synuclein aggregation in neuronal dysfunction and death has broadened understanding of how Parkinson disease develops and introduced a valuable tool for tracking its progress.

Now, a group of Rush scientists has become the first to demonstrate alpha-synuclein aggregation in biological tissue obtained before onset of motor symptoms of Parkinson disease.

Physicians at Rush have demonstrated that the alpha-synuclein protein can also be seen in the nerve cells in the wall of the intestines in research subjects with early Parkinson disease, but not in healthy subjects.  In this study, 10 subjects with early Parkinson disease had flexible sigmoidoscopy, a technique like colonoscopy, in which a flexible scope is inserted into the lower intestine.  In the flexible sigmoidoscopy technique, the scope is only inserted about 8 inches and no colon preparation or anesthesia are required.  The procedure takes only 5-10 minutes.

Read the entire news release.

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