Over nine million people in the U.S. are living with Parkinson’s disease (PD), which is more than the combined number of individuals with Lou Gehrig’s disease, muscular dystrophy, and multiple sclerosis. Across the globe, neurological disorders are the leading cause of disability and PD is the fastest growing of these discoveries. Treatments for the disease have come a long way since PD was first discovered over 200 years ago, but there is as yet no cure. One problem standing in the way of more effective treatments for PD is the difficulties involved with tracking the development of the disease and analyzing how its progression can be halted or stopped altogether. A brand new discovery by researchers at the Duke-NUS Medical School has enabled scientists to study this degenerative brain disease in a whole new light, thanks to the growth of miniature brains that mimic the major pathological features of PD.
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A Tiny Brain with Big Potential
The Duke-NUS Medical School scientists, joined by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), used tiny mini-brain recreations of human brains which comprise 3D, multicellular, in vitro tissue that mimics the working of the human brain. In the past, researchers were limited by the fact that recreated models of PD in animal models did not show the progressive, selective loss of neurons that are responsible for producing dopamine — a neurotransmitter that plays many key roles in the human body. The scientists had previously created and used these mini-brains for other purposes but were pleasantly surprised to discover that these organelles could provide key insight into the progression of PD.
The Vital Study of Neuron Loss
In order to understand PD better, scientists need to be able to observe the process of selective neuron loss, since it is the loss of dopamine that causes the movement symptoms that occur in people with PD. In addition to tremors, people with PD can also have muscle stiffness and difficulties walking and carrying out daily tasks. While there are many potential medications aimed at strengthening muscle function, more tests are needed to discover how to prevent nerve fiber degeneration and stop the cascade of damage caused by specific proteins.
Stem Cell Tech Meets Innovation
The mini-brains were made by manipulating stem cells to match the genetic risk factors of people with Parkinson’s. In addition to showing the progressive loss of neurons, the mini-brains also demonstrate Lewy bodies — clumps of protein that are often found in the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s. This was another key piece of information that was missing in animal studies. Scientists are currently seeking to discover why and how Lewy bodies form in human brain cells.
A team of scientists are currently using mini-brains to discover more about the workings of the brain in people with Parkinson’s disease. Previous lab models did not show selective neuron loss or result in the production of Lewy bodies. The scientists are the first to recreate such a faithful model of Parkinson’s disease, which will allow for far more efficient tracking of how the disease progresses and how it can be stopped.