The breakthrough in the understanding of how Parkinson's spreads through the brain will lead to better treatment options for sufferers of the disease.
A breakthrough discovery in Parkinson's research has shed light about how the disease spreads through the brain.
The University of Auckland research has debunked traditional thinking about the disease and revealed new potential treatment strategies.
The study, which was published in Scientific Reports – Nature on Thursday, will bring "real hope" to the 13,000 New Zealanders living with the disease, according to Parkinson's New Zealand.
Parkinson's New Zealand chief executive Deirdre O'Sullivan called the study "world-leading" research.
"For many years we've been talking about finding a cause, cure or prevention of Parkinson's and this is something that would really help us take a big step towards that goal," said Deirdre O'Sullivan, chief executive of Parkinson's New Zealand.
It's the first proof, in cell culture, of how pathological proteins called Lewy bodies spread from cell to cell in the brain of a person affected by Parkinson's, said associate professor Maurice Curtis.
Parkinson's sufferer Judy Clarke said it is encouraging to know the study can lead to new and better treatment.
The implication is that if there is a spread of the Lewy bodies in the brain then the spread could be stopped early on.
"The traditional way of thinking about Parkinson's was that there was a susceptible area in the brain and if you could fix that area then the next most susceptible area would soon be affected, but if the Parkinson's disease pathology spreads then it may be possible to stop it in its tracks."
Curtis is at the helm of Parkinson's disease study at Auckland University's Centre for Brain Research.
He said the new understanding of how the disease develops provided his team with new goals in development of potential treatments.
"The mechanism that cells use to spread the Lewy bodies is via structures called tunnelling nanotubes that act like conduits between two cells through which large proteins can pass.
"Our work also demonstrated that non-neuronal cells, in this case cells in the blood vessels called pericytes, appear to harbour and spread the Lewy bodies rather than just the neurons," Curtis said.
"Most literature suggests that Lewy bodies cause the most problems in neurons but this paper proposes blood vessel pericytes to be significant."
Its music to the ears of Judy Clarke, 58, who has been living with Parkinson's for 11 years and is a Parkinson's New Zealand board member.
"It's really exciting news; it's great for people with Parkinson's to know how it spreads and it's great that New Zealand is playing such an active role in Parkinson's research."
The mother-of-two from Napier said that although she "shakes like a leaf", it's nothing she can't cope with.
"Researchers and people with Parkinson's getting together to make progress in understanding what Parkinson's actually is is the best thing and hopefully we can find something some day that will actually make it go away," Clarke said.
Curtis said the research had been a major push for his team, and he was proud of how it turned out.
"This work was also made possible because of the availability of human brain cells cultured postmortem from those who donate their brain to advance research, provided by the Centre's Human Brain Bank."
WHAT IS PARKINSON'S DISEASE?
Parkinson's is a neurologic disease that robs people of control over their movements. It typically starts with tremors, and is characterised by slow movement, a shuffling gait, stiff limbs, balance problems and slurred speech.
An estimated 4 million to 5 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson's, according to the US National Parkinson Foundation. It usually appears after age 60, although sometimes it can develop before age 40.
The exact cause isn't known but Parkinson's develops when cells that produce one of the brain's chemical messengers, called dopamine, begin to deteriorate and die. Dopamine transports signals to parts of the brain that control movement. Parkinson's symptoms appear after enough dopamine-producing cells die that there's too little of this neurotransmitter in the brain.
There is no cure but there are a range of treatments, from medications that affect dopamine levels to a surgically implanted tremor-blocking device. Patients also can benefit from physical and occupational therapy.
Symptoms worsen over time, usually slowly. The severity of symptoms, and how quickly they progress, varies widely between patients. In advanced cases, people may be unable to walk or care for themselves. They also can suffer non-motor symptoms, including depression and memory and other cognitive dysfunction.
While Parkinson's itself isn't considered fatal, people can die from complications of the disease.