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November 25, 2004
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Are current drugs for Parkinson's disease ineffective?

As this ScienCentral news video reports, new research shows that mixed signals in Parkinson's patients' brains means a cure could be farther away than expected.

Brain reorganized

Parkinson’s disease is one of the most common neurodegenerative diseases affecting older people in the United States. It’s characterized by the loss of a neurotransmitter, called dopamine, caused by the death of dopamine neurons in a portion of the brain known as the basal ganglia.

Mark West, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and his team recorded the activity of individual neurons in the basal ganglia of rats, after depleting the dopamine in their brain. They inserted a microelectrode in the rat’s brain and studied the neuron signals to and from different body parts. The results of the study are published in the October issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology. It was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Public Health Service, and the Charles and Johanne Busch Foundation.

West explains that neurons that send and receive signals to and from the same part of the body normally cluster together. But after dopamine loss, West and his colleagues found that some neurons around the edges of the clusters changed their responsiveness to different body parts. These neurons began to receive input signals from other body parts, but still sent output signals to the original body part.

“And since they maintain their normal output connections, and the input connections have changed, the brain is unable to interpret these signals”, says West. “And this potentially explains why Parkinson’s patients have difficulty with movement, especially movements that require sensory guidance.”

Current treatment is ineffective

The researchers also found that the reorganized connections seemed to be permanent. So while dopamine-boosting drugs like Levo Dopa can raise the amount of dopamine available in the brain, it cannot repair these switched connections.

Annette Nieves at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School works with Parkinson’s patients. She says, “Levo Dopa is not the answer, it’s just a band aid that will treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s like the tremor and the slowness and the shuffling. But it’s not the cure. It will not stop the disease.”

In fact, West says, the permanently changed connections make finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease next to impossible. He calls for more research to find ways to prevent Parkinson’s disease: “That is, prevent the dopamine loss and prevent these changes in the connections in the first place.”

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