Further clues about alpha-synuclein

New research has advanced our understanding of a protein called alpha-synuclein, which is believed to play a central role in damaging brain cells in Parkinson’s.

UK based researchers have published results that add to our understanding of alpha-synuclein. Interestingly, this research focused on the role of alpha-synuclein in healthy brain cells. Read the full results in the Nature Communications journal. 

What's alpha-synuclein?

It’s not clear exactly what causes someone to develop Parkinson’s. Researchers are constantly piecing together clues as to what’s going wrong inside brain cells. 

Alpha-synuclein is a protein that sticks together forming clumps within the brain cells affected in the condition. 

A lot of research has focused on developing treatments that can remove alpha-synuclein to see if this can help protect brain cells, and there are clinical trials of these experimental therapies underway.

But alpha-synuclein is also present in brain cells of people without Parkinson’s. We don’t really know what this protein does but research suggests it may play an important role in helping brain cells to send messages to other brain cells. 

Understanding this protein better is vital if we’re going to develop Parkinson’s treatments that block it’s harmful effects without interfering with it’s normal function. 

What’s new? 

This research studied healthy brain cells in the lab to explore some of the properties of alpha-synuclein. The model showed that alpha-synuclein gathers on the inside surface of brain cells, where they connect with other cells.  

Professor Alfonso De Simone, from Imperial College London and one of the authors of the paper, said: 

“When this protein is functioning normally it plays an important part in the mechanisms by which neurons exchange signals in the brain. But it has a dark side because it malfunctions and begins to stick together in clumps which eventually spread and kill healthy brain cells. 

“Our research showed that this protein clings onto the inner face of the plasma membrane of brain cells so we are slowly building a picture of this very complex disorder by studying the key function of alpha-synuclein.”

David Dexter, Deputy Director of Research at Parkinson's UK, said: 

"It's important that we keep funding this fundamental research into really getting down to the nitty-gritty about what causes Parkinson's, so we can then design effective treatments to actually slow Parkinson's for the first time."