The study focused on the protein alpha-synucleinMan et al. 2021 (CC BY 4.0)

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have taken a “vital step” towards better understanding Parkinson’s disease.

Recent research, published in the journal Nature Communications, studies the properties of the protein alpha-synuclein.

The malfunction of this protein is damaging to brain cells and is associated with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder with various debilitating symptoms such as tremors.

Dr Giuliana Fusco, the lead author of the paper and research fellow at St John’s College said in a University press release: “This study could unlock more information about this debilitating neurodegenerative disorder that can leave people unable to walk and talk.

“If we want to cure Parkinson’s, first we need to understand the function of alpha-synuclein, a protein present in everyone’s brains. This research is a vital step towards that goal.”

In the nervous system, neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay signals across gaps between neurons. In the absence of a signal, neurotransmitters are confined in compartments within the cell, known as vesicles.

When the neuron becomes active, vesicles containing neurotransmitter fuse with the cell surface, releasing their contents.

Alpha-synuclein, the focus of the study, is believed to assist fusion, and so is important for normal brain function.

Co-author Professor Alfonso De Simone, who works at Imperial College London, commented: “When this protein is functioning normally it plays an important part in the mechanisms by which neurons exchange signals in the brain."

De Simone also said that “until the function of this mystery protein is confirmed with more research, drug therapies cannot begin to be developed to tackle the origins of Parkinson’s Disease”.

He highlighted that the protein has a “dark side” as it “begins to stick together in clumps which eventually spread and kill healthy brain cells”.

The study used a model mimicking the surface of a neuron to determine how alpha-synuclein behaves in healthy cells. Using their model, the researchers demonstrated that alpha-synuclein stabilises the fusion of vesicles to the cell surface.


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Both vesicles and the cell surface consist of lipids, long molecules that are also found in fats and oils. Parkinson’s disease causes changes in the types of lipid present in membranes, which the scientists found stops alpha-synuclein from working properly.

The researchers believe that increased understanding of this protein will help in the development of a cure for Parkinson’s.

Michele Vendruscolo, a professor at Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, told Sky News: "In order to intervene and correct [alpha-synuclein's] behaviour, we first need to know what it does normally, so that when we correct its behaviour we don't interfere with its normal behaviour."

Parkinson’s affects more than 10 million people worldwide and is onset by a combination of age, genetic, and environmental factors.

There are treatments available to alleviate the symptoms, but no current treatment is able to reverse the effects of the disease. Lifestyle changes such as increased rest and exercise can also help to ease symptoms.