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A very specific kind of brain cell dies off in people with Parkinson’s

Deep in the human brain, a very specific kind of cell dies during Parkinson’s disease.

For the first time, researchers have sorted large numbers of human brain cells in the substantia nigra into 10 distinct types. Just one is especially vulnerable in Parkinson’s disease, the team reports May 5 in Nature Neuroscience. The result could lead to a clearer view of how Parkinson’s takes hold, and perhaps even ways to stop it.

The new research “goes right to the core of the matter,” says neuroscientist Raj Awatramani of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. Pinpointing the brain cells that seem to be especially susceptible to the devastating disease is “the strength of this paper,” says Awatramani, who was not involved in the study.

Parkinson’s disease steals people’s ability to move smoothly, leaving balance problems, tremors and rigidity. In the United States, nearly 1 million people are estimated to have Parkinson’s. Scientists have known for decades that these symptoms come with the death of nerve cells in the substantia nigra. Neurons there churn out dopamine, a chemical signal involved in movement, among other jobs (SN: 9/7/17).

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