Researchers discover toxic form of alpha-synuclein

New research demonstrates how the protein alpha-synuclein could cause the loss of cells in Parkinson’s.

An international team of researchers, part funded by Parkinson's UK, have discovered that a particular type of alpha-synuclein may be to blame for damaging brain cells in the condition.

The research is published today in Science.

Alpha synuclein and Parkinson’s

Alpha-synuclein is a protein that was first linked to Parkinson's 20 years ago. 

It is one of the main proteins found inside the Lewy bodies - sticky bundles of proteins that appear inside the brain cells of everyone with the condition.

But how this protein - or the clumps it forms - causes damage to the cells has remained a mystery.

What the researchers did

The researchers used specialist equipment to study the shape of the various alpha-synuclein clumps and found that a layered form - called an oligomer - was toxic to cells.

This form of alpha-synuclein was able to insert itself into and puncture the cell membrane.

The cell membrane is like a skin and plays a vital role in keeping the contents of the cell together and protected.

The team found that when the membrane was punctured by layered alpha-synuclein, it had dire consequences causing the contents of  the cells to leak out, eventually leading to cell death.

Discovery could lead to new treatments

Professor David Dexter, Director of Research, commented on the research findings:

"This study for the first time not only demonstrates which form of alpha-synuclein is toxic but also for the first time demonstrates that how, by embedding themselves in the cellular membrane, the alpha-synuclein oligomers could be causing cell death.

"By developing drugs that stop alpha-synuclein units clumping together in this toxic form, or which prevents alpha-synuclein oligomers embedding in the cell membrane, this discovery could lead to therapies that stop the loss of nerve cells thus halting the progression of Parkinson's."

Find out more about this discovery

Check out Professor Dexter's latest blog to find out more about the science behind this important discovery and the promise it holds for developing new treatments.