The University of Alabama

Research Provides Insight into Suspected Parkinson’s Trigger

By Chris Bryant

Dr. Janis O’Donnell, foreground, and UA graduate students, from front to back, Hakeem Lawal, Arati Inamdar and Kevin Bowling explore some of the genetic reasons why some appear more susceptible to Parkinson’s following exposure to a chemical.

Dr. Janis O’Donnell, foreground, and UA graduate students, from front to back, Hakeem Lawal, Arati Inamdar and Kevin Bowling explore some of the genetic reasons why some appear more susceptible to Parkinson’s following exposure to a chemical.

Researchers at UA are offering clues as to why some people appear to have a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease following exposure to a widely used chemical weed killer.

The research, published in a recent edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, pinpoints three genes within animal models which influence how susceptible they are to developing a Parkinson’s disease-like movement disorder, said Dr. Janis O’Donnell, a co-author of the research and a professor of biological sciences at UA.

“We found these genes do affect how susceptible these individuals are,” O’Donnell said. “Our hope is we can use this observation to discover other genes that might be influencing how these models, or human beings, might be more or less susceptible to these toxic agents.”

The research focused on select genes that influence dopamine synthesis and the release of dopamine from brain cells. The genes identified include those that regulate tetrahydrobiopterin, a compound that is required to make dopamine, as well as those involved directly in dopamine synthesis.

O’Donnell, and current and former students and post-doctoral researchers working in a UA laboratory with her, studied these genes following the animal model’s exposure to the chemical paraquat, an herbicide commonly used throughout the world.

Previous studies have shown elevated Parkinson’s rates within particular agricultural communities. “It was thought that paraquat might be the causative agent,” O’Donnell said, “because the chemical structure of paraquat looks a lot like dopamine, and perhaps it might confuse the cells. But not everybody that lives in these communities gets Parkinson’s. What is it that’s different about different individuals that would alter their susceptibility?”

The answer now appears, at least in part, to lie within these genes identified by the UA researchers.

O’Donnell and her colleagues use fruit flies, known in biological circles by their scientific name, Drosophila melanogaster, in their research. Flies share with humans, and other mammals, many biochemical similarities, particularly in regard to chemicals produced within their brain cells.

Within the fly’s brain is a distinct type of neurotransmitter, dopamine. Each fly has about 200 neurons within its brain that produce dopamine. The human brain, by contrast, has billions of neurons. The simplicity of the fly’s brain lends itself to manageable tracing of experimental impacts on specific neurons. Yet, there are enough similarities in these animals to make them an acceptable model for studying human disease.

“One of the reasons we study the dopamine pathways in the flies is because the genes involved in this process, the proteins involved, the enzymes that make these chemicals, are virtually identical in human beings and in fruit flies,” O’Donnell said.

In Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder affecting some 1 million Americans, neurons in the brain that make dopamine die. Recently, genes associated with some cases of Parkinson’s have been identified, but the root cause of most Parkinson’s disease is not understood. The disease is characterized by rigid and tremoring limbs, difficulty in movement, and impaired reflexes.

Using a specialized microscope, the UA researchers analyzed the flies’ brains after the models had ingested low concentrations of paraquat. Within 12 hours, dopamine neurons within particular regions of the brain began dying. Within 24 hours, many of the dopamine neurons were gone.

Visual observations of the flies also revealed paraquat’s impact. After ingesting paraquat, the flies, as video evidence shows, began to tremor. They moved slowly, if at all. “These animals are developing symptoms that almost precisely parallel most of the symptoms that doctors find in Parkinson’s patients.”

That wasn’t the only parallel. “Men seem to be about twice as susceptible to Parkinson’s disease, as women are,” O’Donnell said. “We were amazed to find that we see exactly the same effect in male fruit flies. The male fruit flies show symptoms earlier and die more rapidly than the females did – which means, perhaps, that we can exploit this system to help us understand why this discrepancy is there. It’s an interesting corollary that surprised us. We didn’t expect that degree of parallel.”

The lead author of the study, parts of which were initially funded by NASA and the National Institutes of Health, is Dr. Anathbandhu “Andy” Chaudhuri, a former post-doctoral researcher at UA. Current UA graduate students Kevin Bowling, Hakeem Lawal and Arati Inamdar are co-authors, as are UA graduates Christopher Funderburk and Zhe Wang.