Controlling protein production in brain cells could help treat Parkinson’s

New research has been published that sheds an important light on how the production of a key protein in the brain is controlled. This could pave the way for new treatments for a wide range of neurological conditions.

We have part-funded a study by a team at University College London, investigating a section of genetic material known as antisense long non-coding RNA (lncRNA). This genetic material helps regulate the production of the tau protein inside brain cells, which is crucial for smooth functioning of the nerve cells.

The role of tau protein

In 2009, a large-scale study found that tau protein could play a significant role in Parkinson’s, because variation in the gene that codes for tau affects the risk of developing the condition.

Understanding the mechanism which helps regulate tau production could be the key to developing better treatments for conditions including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The team’s findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, show that tau, along with other key proteins involved in brain function, are controlled by very similar lncRNAs. This could help scientists in their mission to control the production of these proteins and in turn, control the development of certain neurological conditions. 

Lead investigators Professor Rohan de Silva and Dr Roberto Simone from University College London, said:

“Tau plays a really vital role inside our brain cells. We know that too much tau is detrimental – the excess, unused tau converts into toxic species that may be responsible for damaging cells and driving the spread and progression of disease. 

“Excitingly, we found that the lncRNA that controls tau is not unique. Other key proteins we know to be involved in neurological conditions, including alpha-synuclein in Parkinson’s and beta-amyloid in Alzheimer’s, could be controlled by very similar lncRNAs. This means we may have found the key to regulating the production of a whole range of proteins involved in brain function and the development of these devastating conditions.

“It’s early days but we hope that these exciting new insights will lead to the development of drugs that can keep tau and other proteins under control, and that these therapies could be life-changing for degenerative brain conditions that as yet, we cannot slow or stop.”

Professor David Dexter, Associate Director of Research at Parkinson’s UK, said:

“This important research provides fantastic new insights into how tau production is controlled inside brain cells, and presents an exciting new opportunity for developing therapies that target this.

"It’s especially exciting to see that similar mechanisms may be involved in controlling the production of many other key proteins implicated in other neurological conditions, as it suggests strategies targeting these mechanisms could be effective across many conditions.”

Find out more

We catch up with scientists Professor Rohan de Silva and Dr Roberto Simone from University College London who led this important work, to learn more about what it means for Parkinson's treatment.