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Link between immune system and Parkinson's disease discovered

Link between immune system and Parkinsons disease discovered Body's own defences may attack brain tissue

A new study has identified the body's immune response as a possible cause of nerve damage which leads to Parkinson's disease.

Parkinson's is a chronic condition which affects the way in which messages are passed in the brain, causing sufferers to have difficulty with movement and coordination.

"Over the years, there have been subtle hints that immune function might be linked to Parkinson's disease. But now we have much more convincing evidence of this and a better idea of which parts of the immune system might be involved," said study leader Cyrus Zabetian.

The study tracked 2,000 Parkinson's patients and 2,000 healthy volunteers, some for as long as 20 years. They were analyzed for clinical, genetic and environmental factors that might contribute to the development and progression of Parkinson's disease and its complications.

A section of the human gene - human leukocyte antigen (HLA) - was found to have an association with the disease. HLA contains a large number of genes related to the immune system function in humans.

These genes are essential for recognizing foreign invaders from the body's own tissues. Similarly, HLA molecules are supposed to recognize a body's own tissue as itself and prevent immune reactions against them.

But the system doesn't always work perfectly. HLA genes are highly variable from individual to individual. Certain variants of the genes are associated with increased risk or protection against infectious disease, while other variants can induce autoimmune disorders in which the immune system attacks the body's own tissues.

Another neurological condition, multiple sclerosis, is also linked to the HLA region. Other evidence for the link is that people who take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have a reduced risk of developing Parkinson's. But the effect is not the same for everyone, suggesting that there is a genetic component to the outcome.

There is still much to be done before these findings can yield practical benefits.

"Our results also pointed to several other genes that might play a role in developing Parkinson's disease, and these findings need to be confirmed, so we have a lot of work ahead of us," Dr Zabetian said.

The study is published online in Nature Genetics.

This article was published on Mon 16 August 2010

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