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Each year 60,000 new cases of Parkinson’s disease is diagnosed in America. The exact cause of Parkinson’s is unknown. What is known is certain nerve cells die or are impaired in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. When these cells die the body is deprived of dopamine–a neurotransmitter vital for body movement.

Nicholas Muzyczka, PhD, professor of molecular genetics and microbiology, College of Medicine, University of Florida, believes that his research group have found one more piece of information about what might be causing the toxicity in Parkinson’s disease; specifically, what the protein alpha-synuclein does in the brain.

Alpha-synuclein is located at the synapses of nerve cells and believed to aid in brain function by controlling the release of neurotransmitters–such as dopamine. The rare inherited form of Parkinson’s disease may be caused by a mutation of alpha-synuclein.

Researchers used gene transfer to enhance the production of 3 versions of alpha-synuclein in the substantia nigra region in rats’ brains. For comparison the other side of the rats’ brains were left untreated. All 3 forms simulated phosphorylation. One form of the phosphorylation was non-toxic, but the remaining 2 forms created a toxin protein that caused significant loss of dopamine neurons.

About the smallest thing that can happen in biology is to add a phosphate group, which researchers did when they used gene transfer to enhance the production of alpha-synuclein. Although a relatively minor change the result was that everything got switched around and an innocuous problem became a huge problem. The researchers hope that continuing research in this area will help them get a handle on some of the common diseases and eventually to a drug discovery program.