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Possible New Parkinson's Therapy

When properly manipulated, a population of support cells found in the brain called astrocytes could provide a new and promising approach to treat Parkinson's disease. That’s the finding of a study done at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York and published on January 28th 2014 in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine.

A release from the university quotes lead author Chris Proschel, Ph.D. as saying, "One of the central challenges in Parkinson's disease is that many different cell types are damaged, each of which is of potential importance. However, while we know that the collective loss of these cells contributes to the symptoms of the disease, much of the current research is focused on the recovery of only one cell type."

The release notes that Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological disorder which affects an estimated one million Americans. While the condition is associated with the loss of dopaminergic neurons – cells that produce the important neurotransmitter dopamine – the disease's impact is actually far more complex and wide-ranging, disrupting basic signaling functions and triggering the destruction of several other types of cells found in the brain.

Consequently, while the preservation and restoration of dopamine producing neurons is critical to slowing or reversing the course of the disease, it is increasingly clear that any successful long-term therapy must both protect the areas of the brain under attack and foster the repair of not only dopaminergic neurons but also the damage that occurs in other cell populations.

"Reversing the disease's impact on the brain is akin to the challenges of fixing a house that is in the process of falling apart," said Proschel. "If you only focus on addressing one aspect of the problem, such as the wiring, but ignore the fact that the roof is leaking and the foundation is crumbling, then you haven't really carried out the necessary repairs and it is only a matter of time before the lights go out again."

Using human brain cells, Proschel and his colleagues isolated a cell population found in the central nervous system called glial precursors. Through the careful manipulation of culture conditions and cell signals, the researchers induced the precursor cells to produce a specific class of astrocytes.

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