NIH Awards Colorado State University Researcher $1.5 Million to Study Environmental Influences on Parkinson’s Disease

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Too much manganese, a naturally occurring heavy metal that assists human physiological function, may contribute to the kind of inflammation in neurological cells that contributes to Parkinson’s disease.

Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Ron Tjalkens, associate professor at Colorado State University, will spend the next five years investigating such environmental influences as manganese on brain degeneration.

Tjalkens, who is in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at CSU, is one of a growing number of investigators examining the non-neuronal cells of the brain known as glial cells, which support the basic functions of neurons. Glial cells also appear to create the inflammatory response in brain cells that can lead to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Tjalkens compared it to chronic arthritis, but in the brain.

“Glial cells are the least understood aspect of neurological disease,” Tjalkens said. “With stroke, spinal cord injuries, whenever you stress or injure neurons, all the surrounding support cells known as glial cells start to acquire a long-term inflammatory state where they activate and produce substances that further damage the neurons.

“They’re functionally coupled to neurons – they provide life support and aid in neurotransmission and blood flow and many other things,” he added. “The overarching question is what’s responsible for triggering this neuroinflammation that is involved in the progression of these neurological diseases. What are the fundamental signaling pathways that are responsible? Once you understand the fundamental pathways responsible for neuroinflammation, you know the targets to go after.”

Tjalkens also received a separate $120,000 grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the largest privately funded source of Parkinson’s research grants, to investigate compounds that could halt progression of the disease. Current Parkinson’s treatments only control the symptoms, while neuroprotective compounds could stop the degeneration of neurons in the brain and effectively halt the disease.

Scientists have already determined that age, genetic predisposition or environmental influences – not inherited genetic defects – are involved in most cases of Parkinson’s disease. Genetic predisposition means that many subtle changes in a person’s genome can contribute to their sensitivity to disease. Inherited genetic defects are those inherited single gene mutations that can directly cause disease.

“Low-level exposures could increase your susceptibility to disease later in life,” Tjalkens said. “We’re understanding now that it’s this cocktail of genetics, environment and age that gives many diseases.”

Manganese, for example, has been garnering significant attention for its effect on children, who absorb it more readily into their brains. That could be a factor on whether children are more susceptible to neurological disease later in life – especially when 6 percent of drinking water wells in the nation have higher than accepted levels of manganese, Tjalkens said.