Meet the Researcher: Do Environmental Contaminants Increase Parkinson’s Risk?

Over the next three years the Parkinson’s Foundation will invest more than $50 million to Parkinson’s disease (PD) research and clinical care. At the heart of our research initiatives are scientists and researchers who have received Foundation awards to improve our understanding of Parkinson’s, which will ultimately lead us to a cure.

brianaWhile there is no known single cause for non-genetic (idiopathic) Parkinson’s disease, most cases are likely caused by interaction between a person’s genetics and their environment. Genetics cause about 10% to 15% of all Parkinson's. This is called familial PD. However, not everyone who carries PD gene mutations develop the disease.

Briana De Miranda, PhD, received a Postdoctoral Fellowship for Basic Scientists from the Parkinson’s Foundation to study the role environmental exposures play in the risk for both idiopathic and familial PD. Environmental factors that are linked to increased PD risk include pesticides, such as rotenone and paraquat, and the industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TCE).

These chemicals disrupt the functioning of the mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of the cell. In addition, Dr. De Miranda has found that rotenone, paraquat and TCE cause activation of the protein affected by one of the most commonly inherited PD genetic mutations, LRRK2.

Her goal is to investigate whether mutations in LRRK2 increase susceptibility to the damaging effects of these chemicals, even when a person is exposed to low levels. She will also assess whether inhibiting the LRRK2 protein protects against these effects.

To achieve this goal, she will study the interactions of these environmental toxicants with LRRK2 in brain nerve cells. She will also use an animal model to study LRRK2 activation following exposure to these toxicants.

Clinical trials are currently underway for LRRK2 inhibitors for use in inherited PD cases. Our hope is this research may provide evidence that these drugs may help prevent PD induced by environmental toxicant exposure and lead to expanded use of LRRK2 inhibitors to treat those with idiopathic PD who have been exposed to these chemicals.

Parkinson's Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowships for Basic Scientists are two-year fellowships for young scientists, fresh from their PhD training, to study at major research institutions. Postdoctoral Fellowships for Clinical Neurologists are awarded to young clinicians who have completed their neurology residency and want research experience.

What's Next: Reporting Our Findings

Parkinson’s Foundation research awards fund Parkinson’s studies than can span up to three years. Scientists submit yearly progress reports to the Parkinson’s Foundation, and we report findings once the studies have concluded. Stay up to date with our latest research findings at Parkinson.org/Blog.

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