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The role of mitochondria in Parkinson's disease

World Parkinsons Day 2023

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Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects the ability of the brain to control movement. It is caused by the loss of a particular group of neurones in the brain.

1 in 37 people in the UK will be diagnosed with the disorder in their lifetime.

Elderly person holding hands with another person

Most people who develop Parkinson’s do so after the age of 60, and the disease is more common in men than women.

Symptoms of Parkinson’s usually worsen with time. Patients often experience uncontrollable movements like shaking, and trouble with coordination and balance. This can make it difficult to walk and talk, and they may have sleep problems, cognitive changes, memory loss, and fatigue. Some also experience depression.

Medicines, surgical treatments, and physical, occupational, and speech therapies are often able to relieve some of the symptoms of Parkinson's, but there is currently no cure.

What are mitochondria and how is it linked to Parkinson’s?

Mitochondria are like the batteries of our cells. They are small organelles found within our cells that convert the food we eat into a chemical form of energy, called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This energy allows our cells to function.

If the mitochondria are faulty, the cells will not have enough energy and can become damaged.

There is much research evidence linking mitochondrial dysfunction to the development of Parkinson’s, but more still needs to be understood.

Investigating this link

With a Medical Research Foundation Enhancing Research Award, Dr Michael Devine from The Francis Crick Institute is investigating the distribution and activity of mitochondria in neurons to better understand its role in Parkinson’s.

Dr Michael Devine, The Francis Crick Institute

Using mass spectrometry imaging (a technique that allows for precise measurement of proteins and molecules of the mitochondria), Dr Devine and his team are looking specifically at mitochondrial function at synapses, where nerve cells communicate with each other in the brain.

Studying the mitochondria in this way may help to uncover new insights into the underlying causes of Parkinson's disease, and could potentially lead to new therapies that specifically target these organelles within synapses to slow or stop the progression of the disorder.

We want to understand why synapses are lost in Parkinson’s disease, and we think that mitochondria might be part of the answer. Dr Michael Devine

The Francis Crick Institute

We spoke to Mike about what his team are aiming to achieve:

"We want to understand why synapses are lost in Parkinson’s disease, and we think that mitochondria might be part of the answer.

We will apply techniques that allow us to “see” how mitochondria use different fuels and proteins that they need to carry out their essential roles in supporting synapses. We will compare mitochondria at synapses to mitochondria located elsewhere in healthy neurons, and we will carry out the same comparison in neurons with Parkinson’s disease.

This work will help us work out whether mitochondria located at synapses behave differently to mitochondria elsewhere, and might provide us with clues to enable us to rescue synaptic mitochondria, as a way to treat Parkinson’s disease. We would like to thank the Medical Research Foundation for supporting this project."

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Child is being carried by adult, she leans her head on the adults shoulder. She has a bandage on her hand and smiles at the camera.