April 6, 2009

New Hope for Neurodegenerative Diseases

A better understanding of how inflammation impacts neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson's disease may one day lead to new and better treatments for these conditions.

Researchers from the University of California San Diego and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies are looking at a protein called Nurr 1 that's known to be involved in the generation and maintenance of dopaminergic neurons in the brain. These neurons are the main source for dopamine, which helps control a wide variety of brain functions, including movement, pleasure, and attention.

In a series of new studies, the investigators discovered Nurr 1 also impacts two other cell types in the brain: microglia, which play a role in the immune system, and astrocytes, which are involved in supporting important functions in the brain.

From there, they found microglia become overly sensitive to inflammatory stimulation when Nurr 1 is missing. This activity is sensed by astrocytes and the resulting "cross talk" creates even more inflammation. The researchers went on to identify the molecular mechanisms enabling Nurr 1 to protect neurons by shutting down the inflammatory responses of microglia and astrocytes.

"Although no prospective clinical trials have yet been performed in humans that show a benefit of inhibiting inflammation in any neurodegenerative disease, the presence of signs of inflammation in Parkinson's disease patients suggest that this could be a valuable strategy," study author Christopher Glass, M.D., Ph.D., was quoted as saying.

SOURCE: Cell, published online April 2, 2009