My PD Story

Lena Burbulla headshot

Lena Burbulla, PhD

Unraveling How Parkinson’s Progresses: The Role of a Lesser-Studied Brain Cell

When it comes to Parkinson’s disease (PD) research, neurons are often the center of attention. However, there are many other important types of cells in the brain that are worth investigating, a fact known well by Lena Burbulla, PhD, recipient of a Parkinson’s Foundation Impact Award. From her lab at Ludwig Maximillian University (LMU) in Munich, Germany, Dr. Burbulla devotes her attention to oligodendrocytes, a lesser-studied brain cell type that she believes may play a larger role in Parkinson’s progression than currently thought.

The main function of oligodendrocytes is to produce myelin, a fatty substance that wraps around neurons and enables the proper transmission of electrical signals — much like a blanket or a sheath. It has long been known that these myelination blankets provide critical insulation to the fragile neurons, but only recently have they been found to also facilitate the transfer of important nutrients and antioxidants to keep the neurons healthy and protected.

What is an oligodendrocyte? 
Oligodendrocytes are a type of cell found in the brain. They create a fatty substance called myelin that wraps around neurons, much like a blanket or a sheath. This action helps protect the vulnerable parts of brain cells and keeps them firing normally. 

Though recent studies have suggested a causal role of oligodendrocytes in PD, these results are puzzling, since only a few of the specific neurons lost in PD are myelinated. This raises compelling questions as to how oligodendrocytes are linked to the disease if not much myelination is needed by the affected neurons.

Dr. Burbulla seeks to uncover answers to two major questions:

  1. How do oligodendrocytes in people with Parkinson’s differ from those without PD?
  2. How do oligodendrocytes malfunctioning due to Parkinson’s-associated mutations affect neurons?

To find answers, she will first study possible differences of oligodendrocyte numbers and distribution in post-mortem brain tissue of people with Parkinson’s and healthy donors. As a second approach, Dr. Burbulla will utilize induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology to reprogram skin cells from people with PD and healthy donors into oligodendrocyte cultures, effectively generating large numbers of brain cells without any surgery or dissection needed.

Using these in vitro disease models (meaning they take place outside the body), Dr. Burbulla will measure and compare the cellular levels of important metabolic proteins and markers of neuronal function and health, determining in what ways oligodendrocytes of people with PD differ from those of healthy controls.

With help from her co-investigator Sarah Jaekel, PhD, Dr. Burbulla will next create 3D oligodendrocyte organoids (“mini brains,” as she calls them). She will generate these mini brains both from iPS cells with and without Parkinson’s-associated mutations, with the goal of studying how such mutations may impact neuronal health.

Excited to begin her work with the support of a Parkinson’s Foundation Impact Award, Dr. Burbulla said “Receiving this award is a great honor for me. I have worked hard over the last years at various national and international institutions to expand and strengthen my expertise in PD research…Only with this kind of support, will I and my team be able to advance the understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms that lead to the demise of neurons in PD.”

Meet more Parkinson’s researchers! Explore our My PD Stories featuring PD researchers.

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