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Medical Research

A New Parkinson's Discovery

Because billions of neurons are packed into our brain, the neuronal circuits that are responsible for controlling our behaviors are by necessity highly intermingled. This tangled web makes it complicated for scientists to determine exactly which circuits do what. Now, using two laboratory techniques pioneered in part at Caltech, Caltech researchers have mapped out the pathways of a set of neurons responsible for the kinds of motor impairments—such as difficulty walking—found in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

The work—from the laboratory of Viviana Gradinaru (BS ’05), assistant professor of biology and biological engineering—was published in the journal Neuron.

In patients with Parkinson’s disease, gait disorders and difficulty with balance are often caused by the degeneration of a specific type of neuron—called cholinergic neurons—in a region of the brainstem called the pedunculopontine nucleus (PPN). Damage to this same population of neurons in the PPN is also linked to reward-based behaviors and disorders, such as addiction.

Previously, researchers had not been able to untangle the neural circuitry originating in the PPN to understand how both addictions and Parkinson’s motor impairments are modulated within the same population of cells. Furthermore, this uncertainty created a barrier to treating those motor symptoms. After all, deep brain stimulation—in which a device is inserted into the brain to deliver electrical pulses to a targeted region—can be used to correct walking and balance difficulties in these patients, but without knowing exactly which part of the PPN to target, the procedure can lead to mixed results.

“The circuits responsible for controlling our behaviors are not nicely lined up, where this side does locomotion and this side does reward,” Gradinaru says, and this disordered arrangement arises from the way neurons are structured. Much as a tree extends into the ground with long roots, neurons are made up of a cell body and a long string-like axon that can diverge and project elsewhere into different areas of the brain. Because of this shape, the researchers realized they could follow the neuron’s “roots” to an area of the brain less crowded than the PPN. This would allow them to more easily look at the two very different behaviors and how they are implemented.

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