On a cellular level, the degradation of neurodegenerative diseases are a product of oxidative stress – stress caused by too high a concentration of oxidants in the cell. “Oxidant” here is a chemistry term for compounds that have unpaired electrons in their outer electron shell’s; they’re highly reactive, and can damage proteins or other cellular structures they come in contact with. They’re also referred to as “free radicals”. Free radicals are mostly produced by cellular energy metabolism – the conversion of food and oxygen into energy within the mitochondria. We have mechanisms for limiting the amount of free radicals, and preventing the damage they cause, mostly through antioxidants.
“Apart from several other environmental or genetic factors, oxidative stress (OS) leading to free radical attack on neural cells contributes calamitous role to neuro-degeneration… imbalanced metabolism and excess reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation end into a range of disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, aging and many other neural disorders. Toxicity of free radicals contributes to proteins and DNA injury, inflammation, tissue damage and subsequent cellular apoptosis. [cell death]” – Uttara et al.
In Parkinson’s in particular, cellular damage (and cell death) is known to be caused by “dopaminergic neurotoxicity”, which is basically neurons being poisoned by too much dopamine – which is otherwise an important and valuable neurotransmitter. “Oxidative stress is thought to play an important role in dopaminergic neurotoxicity.” – Blesa et al.
Inflammation is also a key factor. Throughout the body, temporary inflammation is usually a good thing – it occurs in response to some particular injury or event, helps the immune system deal with any invasive organisms and tissue damage. But chronic inflammation is rarely useful, and often damaging. Chronic inflammation in the gut can lead to digestive problems and food allergies; chronic inflammation in the arteries can lead to cardiovascular disease; and chronic inflammation in the brain is proving to be a key part of the sequence of events leading to neurodegeneration. Inflammation is fundamentally an immune system response; where there’s ongoing inflammation, the immune system has been led to think there’s something it needs to attack. It’s also, at least in part, a systemic response – inflammation in one part of the body increases the likelihood of inflammation elsewhere. (In particular, inflammation in the gut has been shown to stimulate inflammation in the brain.)
“[Our findings strengthen] the theory of a ‘gut-brain axis’, where the intestinal environment influences the functioning of the central nervous system and intestinal imbalance may precede PD pathology.” – Villumsen et al
So all of this suggests three major avenues of healing:
- Reducing things that cause oxidative stress
- Supporting the brain with effective antioxidants
- Reducing Inflammation, systemically, in the gut, and in the brain
Role of Oxidative Stress in Alzheimer’s Disease – Huang et al (2016)
Oxidative Stress and Parkinson’s Disease – Blesa et al (2015)
Oxidative Stress and Neurodegenerative Diseases – Uttara et al (2009)
The Role of Inflammation in Parkinson’s Disease – Dr. Rebecca Gilbert on the ADPA website (2018)
Inflammatory Bowel Disease Increases the Risk of Parkinson’s Disease – Villumsen et al (2018)