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New research links Parkinson's with gut bacteria

Tagged In:  Allied Health

Scientists found that people with Parkinson's Disease (PD) often reported digestive problems up to 10 years before they noticed major symptoms.

Allied health professionals such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists have traditionally been central to PD care. Now it seems that nutritionists and dietitians may have a bigger role to play in the future. Tests on mice have suggested that PD may originate in the gut, rather than the brain. 

Published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Cell, the research was carried out by a range of institutions, mainly from the USA and Sweden, including the California Institute of Technology. It was funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and the Swedish Research Council.

Backing up previous research, the study suggests that the presence of gut bacteria may cause the build-up of proteins called alpha-synuclein. These toxic fibres build up in the nerve endings and can start damaging the patient's brain neurons in just a few weeks.

Mice are not the same as humans, so the study does not prove that PD is essentially a gut disorder and could potentially be treated or prevented with antibiotics, probiotics or changes in diet. However, if the research is verified and replicated, it could change the way the disease is treated. It could also help with prevention, perhaps enabling doctors to screen for PD before symptoms appear and the damage to the brain occurs.

Dietitians already help people with PD maintain a healthy and nutritious diet, as well as dealing with specific issues such as constipation, difficulties swallowing and loss of appetite. "No singular diet can treat Parkinson's," says the Michael J Fox Foundation, "But a healthy and balanced diet can improve general wellbeing. Eating fruits and vegetables may help keep you energised and hydrated. Fibre-rich foods and fluids may ease symptoms of constipation of low blood pressure."

In the UK, one person in every 500 has PD. That's about 127,000 people. Most are aged 50 or over, although it can also affect younger people. There's currently no cure, but medication can relieve symptoms by restoring the level of dopamine in the brain or mimicking its actions. However, this can have side effects, including involuntary body movements and impulsive or compulsive behaviour.

2016 was a landmark year for PD research with several new studies providing progress towards better diagnosis and treatment. As for finding a cure, the first clinical trial of stem cell treatment was announced. In addition, analysis is underway of a £2.5 million clinical trial of the experimental treatment Glial Cell-derived Neurotrophic Factor (GDNF). Results are expected some time in 2017.

"We may each have our own individual Parkinson's," commented Michael J Fox in 2014, "But we all share one thing in common. Hope."

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