The saying "Listen to your gut" is taking on new meaning in the hunt for clues about Parkinson's disease.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded a UMass Lowell public health professor a $2.1 million grant to study the relationship between gut bacteria and Parkinson's disease. The five-year study will be the largest of its kind to date.
"My hope is that this research will advance our understanding of how the human gut microbiome contributes to the onset of Parkinson's," said Assistant Prof. Natalia Palacios.
Nearly a million people in the U.S. are living with Parkinson's disease. The cause and the cure have yet to be discovered, so Parkinson's is treated with medication and surgery that can only help manage symptoms that include tremors, impaired balance and slowness of movement.
Current research shows that years before people with Parkinson's disease are diagnosed, the vast majority of them experienced constipation and other types of gastrointestinal problems. Recently, scientists have discovered that certain proteins associated with Parkinson's are found in the gut before they can be seen in the brain.
In the new UMass Lowell study, the research team being led by Palacios will compare the gut bacteria of people in the earliest stages of the disease with that of people without the disease.
If a specific bacterial pattern does exist for people in the early stages of the disease, it may be possible to diagnose Parkinson's earlier and target sufferers for clinical trials of new drugs. To date, many Parkinson's patients who enter clinical trials are at a point where the disease is too advanced for the new drug to have an effect.
The researchers will sequence the genes of the gut bacteria from participants in two large epidemiological studies and compare the bacteria of people in the earliest stages of the disease with those who are healthy.
"A better understanding of the role that the microbiome plays in Parkinson's disease will hopefully bring us closer to a cure for this devastating disease," said Palacios.
Another goal of the research is to better understand why previous studies have shown that people who drink coffee and smoke may be protected from getting Parkinson's disease.
"Prior studies have shown that smokers and coffee drinkers have a lower risk of Parkinson's, but we don't know why," she said. "We will try to find out if gut bacteria composition can help explain these protective effects."