A protein necessary for neurotransmitter transport in our brains is implicated in Parkinson's disease

Parkinson's disease affects over 10 million people worldwide

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Oglęcka et al, 2014 in eLife/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As we age, our brain becomes more vulnerable to different diseases. Parkinson's disease is one such debilitating disorder. It affects more than 10 million people worldwide. Men are 1.5 times more likely than women to develop it. Most people with Parkinson's disease develop it when they are around 60 years old, when the motor cells in their brains begin to die off, leading to a loss of motor control.

This brain cell death is caused by clumping of alpha-synuclein (α-syn) proteins. We know that α-syn is found in the region of the neuron that sends packages of neurochemical signals, which are called vesicles. But we don't know what this protein does in a healthy brain. This might hold a clue to why α-syn begins clumping. 

A new study in Nature Communications provides more context into their function. Scientists used artificial cell membranes to mimic the vesicles sent out by cells. By adding α-syn to these vesicles, they found that it sticks like glue to the inside of the vesicle and keeps these tiny packages of neurochemicals at their origins until the cell is ready to send them out. This might explain how one abnormally clumping α-syn protein can spread and build up inside of neurons in people with Parkinson's disease. This very basic scientific finding could lead to better treatments for the disease in the future.