New research suggests that people who develop Parkinson’s disease before the age of 50 may have been born with the disease.
The study, published by the Cedars-Sinai research centre in California, suggests that the finding could lead to new treatments and medicines able to “correct” the course of the disease.
Parkinson’s is caused when specific cells that transmit and make dopamine in the brain become impaired or die, which results in slowness of movement, rigid muscles, tremors and a loss of balance.
While scientists do not know exactly what causes the disease, the impaired or dying brain cells can be identified from an early age.
The study looked at patients with Parkinson’s disease who developed the condition from between the age of 21 and 50 years old – around 10 per cent of all cases.
Using highly advanced scientific methods, the researchers took brain cells from the patients and took them “back in time” to a primitive embryonic state, known as induced pluripotent stem cells. The cells were then tested against cells found in normal, “healthy” brains.
It was found that the Parkinson’s cells quickly accumulated a protein called alpha-synuclein, which occurs in most forms of Parkinson’s disease, and developed “malfunctioning” cell structures.
Commenting on the study, lead author Michele Tagliati said: “Young-onset Parkinson’s is especially heartbreaking because it strikes people at the prime of life.
“This exciting new research provides hope that one day we may be able to detect and take early action to prevent this disease in at-risk individuals.”
In the UK, it is estimated that around one in every 37 people will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in their lifetime.