Last month, the great boxer Muhammad Ali died at 74 from complications associated with Parkinson’s disease. The death of “The Greatest” has opened a space for the world to not only celebrate his life and legacy, but also bring awareness to the neurodegenerative disorder that Ali battled with for over 30 years.
Parkinson’s disease affects a person’s mobility. It is usually characterized by tremors, a slow gait and difficulty speaking. For a while, researchers have known that a decrease in the neurotransmitter dopamine is associated with the onset of Parkinson’s. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for our feelings of pleasure and reward, and therefore has important implications for addictive behaviours such as gambling and drug abuse. Additionally, dopamine is responsible for muscle movements, which is why its reduction is implicated in the onset of Parkinson’s.
Canadian scientists have discovered that two genes, PINK1 and Parkin, which protect the body’s cells from attack by the immune system, are mutated in patients with Parkinson’s. When these genes are mutated, the proteins in the mitochondria of the cells are left exposed and naked to the immune system. This launches the immune system’s attack on brain cells.
A study by researchers from the University of Leicester confirms that mutations in these genes kill brain cells. The scientists studied fruit flies to examine how the mitochondria could effectively stop the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) from performing its normal functions. The mitochondria are organelles in the cell that provide energy. When they bind to the ER, it can no longer package and fold proteins.
With this exciting new discovery, the question now becomes: how can we stop mitochondria from doing this?
This discovery points to the importance of recognising the microbiology and the genetics of Parkinson’s disease. Muhammad Ali fought a long and hard battle with Parkinson’s. There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but scientists continue to push forward to look for new ways the disease might be managed.