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Public Health Prof Wins $2.1M Grant for Parkinson's Research

Study Will Examine Gut Bacteria for Early Signs of the Disease

Natalia Palacios
The NIH awarded Asst. Prof. of Public Health Natalia Palacios a grant to study the relationship between gut bacteria and the risk of Parkinson’s disease.

07/06/2017
By Karen Angelo

“Listen to your gut” takes on new meaning as researchers investigate whether Parkinson’s Disease starts in the stomach, not in the brain. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Asst. Prof. of Public Health Natalia Palacios a $2.1 million, five-year grant to study the relationship between gut bacteria and the risk of Parkinson’s disease. 

“This will be the largest study to date on the gut microbiome and Parkinson’s disease,” says Palacios. “My hope is that this research will advance our understanding of how the human gut microbiome contributes to the onset of Parkinson’s.” 

Nearly a million people in the U.S. are living with Parkinson’s disease, the cause of which is not known. With no cure, Parkinson’s is treated with medication and surgery that only helps manage the disease symptoms that include tremors, impaired balance and slowness of movement. 

Examining the Gut for Early Signs of Parkinson’s Disease 

Current research shows that years before people with Parkinson’s disease are diagnosed, the vast majority of them of them experienced constipation and other types gastrointestinal problems. Recently, scientists have discovered that certain proteins associated with Parkinson are found in the gut before they can be seen in the brain. 

In this new study, the research team will compare the gut bacteria of people in the earliest stages of the disease with those without the disease. If a specific bacterial pattern does exist for people in the early stages of the disease, it may be possible for people to be diagnosed earlier and targeted for clinical trials of new drugs. Currently, when Parkinson’s patients are recruited into clinical trials, their disease is likely too advanced for the drugs to have an effect.

To conduct the study, Palacios will collect stool samples from groups of participants in two large ongoing epidemiological studies. After sequencing the genes of their gut bacteria, the research team will compare the bacteria of people in the earliest stages of the disease with people who are healthy. 

“A better understanding of the role that the microbiome plays in Parkinson’s disease will hopefully bring us closer to a cure for this devastating disease,” says Palacios. 

Another goal of the research is to better understand why previous studies have shown that people who drink coffee and smoke may be protected from getting Parkinson’s disease. 

“Prior studies have shown that smokers and coffee drinkers have a lower risk of Parkinson’s, but we don’t know why,” says Palacios. “We will study whether smoking and coffee might only be protective among people with a certain bacterial composition in their gut, and if information about the gut bacteria might help us better understand."