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Study: Protecting Neurons in Parkinson's Disease

A nurse holding an elderly male patient's hand

Nearly 1 million people in the U.S. have Parkinson's disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that causes tremors, stiffness, slowing of movement and poor balance that worsens over time. These motor symptoms are caused by low or falling levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps coordinate body movements, among other functions.

Parkinson's disease also causes nonmotor symptoms such as sleep disturbance, bowel and bladder problems, digestive issues, and problems with the skin, heart rate, and blood pressure. Previous research has connected these symptoms with another neurotransmitter called norepinephrine, which is important in the body's fight-or-flight response to stress.

Both of these signaling molecules, which allow nerve cells to communicate with each other, are produced in the adrenal glands at the top of the kidneys and in distinct regions in the brain. The death of dopamine-producing neurons in the brain's substantia nigra region has been established as a key trigger for the onset of motor dysfunction in patients with Parkinson's disease.

The role that norepinephrine, which is produced in the locus coeruleus region of the brain, plays in Parkinson's disease has been less well understood.

Headshot of Celine E. Riera, PhD

Celine E. Riera, PhD