In Brief
For over a century scientists have pondered if an autoimmune response could have a role in the progression of Parkinson's disease. New research suggests that the immune system could be harming other brain cells while attacking the accumulated proteins.

When Immune Systems Attack

The National Parkinson’s Foundation tells us that there are more than 10 million people living with Parkinson’s disease around the world. Over the last few decades, medical research scientists have been hard at work looking for new ways to both understand and develop new treatments for the debilitating disease.

New research is finally addressing a pressing question about the full scope of the disease and its progression. Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology have completed a study which suggests that “autoimmunity” does play a deleterious role in the progression of the disease. Even more, employing drugs to mitigate that immune response could help quell the disease’s progression.

Another cause of the progression of the disease is the accumulation of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain. One theory is that since the immune system recognizes these proteins as invaders and therefore attacks the brain to eradicate them. Unfortunately, this response comes at the expense of other brain cells that are destroyed in the process.

Image credit: R. Bick, B. Poindexter, UT Medical School/SPLImage credit: R. Bick, B. Poindexter, UT Medical School/SPL

A Gut Feeling

Previous research has found evidence suggesting that Parkinson’s could also begin in the gut. Professor David Sulzer, one of the study’s researchers told BBC News, “We imagine that T-cells may first identify alpha-synuclein out in periphery, particularly in the nervous system of gut which is not a problem until the T-cells enter the brain.”

In response, Dr. Allesandro Sette believes that immunotherapy could raise the body’s tolerance to those harmful proteins. That would, in turn, lessen the immune system’s attack response, which inadvertently harms the brain.

Additional research will be required to fully understand the immune system’s role in the progression of Parkinson’s, but these findings do suggest an exciting new avenue for researchers to pursue in order to develop new treatments — many of which aim to slow or stop the progression of the disease.