Algae toxin linked with Parkinson’s

13 March 2020

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Scientists have discovered a possible link between Parkinson’s disease and a gene impacted by a neurotoxin found in blue-green algae.

University of Queensland scientist Dr Jacob Gratten - who co-led the study with Institute for Molecular Bioscience geneticist Professor Peter Visscher - said the findings increased the understanding of the environmental risk factors of Parkinson’s disease.

A gene linked to Parkinson's disease is targeted by blue-green algae neurotoxin.

“We looked for a link between Parkinson’s and changes in the genome that control how genes are turned on and off, because these changes can be influenced by the environment,” Dr Gratten said.

“We found a gene, previously not known to be linked to Parkinson’s, which displayed reduced activity in people with the disease.

“This same gene is known to be targeted by a blue-green algae neurotoxin.”

Blue-green algae is found in inland waterways and poses a health risk to people, domestic animals and stock that come into contact with the toxic algal blooms. 

Lethal algae reduces cellular activity

The research team at MRI-UQ made the discovery in collaboration with Professor George Mellick at Griffith University and colleagues from New South Wales and New Zealand.

Their findings are the culmination of more than a decade of scientific effort.

Neurotoxins released by blue-green algae reduce cellular activity in the gene identified in the study.

Researchers predict this will lead to higher oxidative stress levels in nerve cells associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Dr Gratten said that while the study does not provide a direct link with Parkinson’s, blue-green algae had previously been associated with other neurodegenerative diseases such as motor neurone disease.

“This gives us confidence that we’re moving in the right direction towards understanding the environmental causes of Parkinson’s disease,” Dr Gratten said.

Parkinson's a threat for ageing population

Professor Visscher said Parkinson’s disease affects 1 in 100 people over 60-years-old and that figure is projected to double by 2040 as the population ages.

“This disease destroys lives and devastates families, so we’re determined to unlock the mystery behind Parkinson’s,” Professor Visscher said.

“More work is needed to confirm our findings, and to explore other possible explanations for the link between this gene and Parkinson’s disease, such as pesticides.”

The research is a collaboration between researchers from the Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney, University of Otago, New Zealand Brain Research Institute and the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

This study was published in Nature Communications

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