For many of us, keeping our balance is something we never have to think about. Since it happens so naturally, why should we think about the elaborate neural connections that make it possible? However, we can learn a lot about the brain when we look at what happens when motor control is impaired. One motor-impairing condition under much scrutiny is Parkinson’s disease, and many scientists dream of finding a cure for it.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease of the central nervous system that leads to highly impaired movement, most notably tremors, walking difficulties, and balance losses. Once symptoms begin, nothing can stop them, and patients watch their bodies slowly deteriorate. The major cause of the disease is dopamine release due to expansive cell death in regions of the brain that secrete dopamine. This explains the hallmarks of the disease, as dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for the control of movement. Although reduced dopamine is not the only cause of Parkinson’s, scientists looking for treatment are focusing on how to restore dopamine-secreting cells in the brain. Since many results have come up short, current research points to the use of stem cells.
While embryonic stem cells have caused much controversy since their discovery, a new technology using adult skin cells can create induced pluripotent stem cells without any ethical issues. These have a lot of potential to differentiate into dopamine-secreting cells, which could possibly relieve symptoms in Parkinson’s patients. Despite this potential, doctors are hesitant to start clinical trials too early as mistakes could tarnish the reputation of stem cell research. However, since extensive animal trials have been done on the effects of stem cells on Parkinson’s disease, research is still moving forward with clinical trials on humans.
Just a month ago, The Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia began the very first stem cell clinical trial on a 64 year old man with Parkinson’s disease. The stem cells, synthetically manufactured in a biotech lab, were injected into the patient’s brain through an extensive surgery. The neurologists predict that some of these stem cells will differentiate into dopamine releasing cells and lead to improvement in the patient’s condition. Over the next year, 11 more patients will get the stem cell surgery, and all of the participants will be monitored for 12 months. While preliminary results are looking good, we have to wait until 2019 to see whether the operations are successful and if this could be the future of treating Parkinson’s disease.
Given this, the doctors are hopeful a treatment may stem from this research.
- Galeon, D. The War on Parkinson’s: Stem Cells Successfully Injected into Patient’s Brain. http://futurism.com/the-war-on-parkinsons-stem-cells-successfully-injected-into-patients-brain/ (accessed 10/10/16), part of Futurism.
- Stem Cells and Parkinson’s Disease. https://www.michaeljfox.org/understanding-parkinsons/living-with-pd/topic.php?stem-cells (accessed 10/10/16), part of The Michael J. Fox Foundation.
- The Human Balance System: Good Balance is Often Taken for Granted. http://vestibular.org/understanding-vestibular-disorder/human-balance-system (accessed 10/10/16), part of Vestibular Disorders Association.