Parkinson disease: from pathology to molecular disease mechanisms

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Abstract

Parkinson disease (PD) is a complex neurodegenerative disorder with both motor and nonmotor symptoms owing to a spreading process of neuronal loss in the brain. At present, only symptomatic treatment exists and nothing can be done to halt the degenerative process, as its cause remains unclear. Risk factors such as aging, genetic susceptibility, and environmental factors all play a role in the onset of the pathogenic process but how these interlink to cause neuronal loss is not known. There have been major advances in the understanding of mechanisms that contribute to nigral dopaminergic cell death, including mitochondrial dysfunction, oxidative stress, altered protein handling, and inflammation. However, it is not known if the same processes are responsible for neuronal loss in nondopaminergic brain regions. Many of the known mechanisms of cell death are mirrored in toxin-based models of PD, but neuronal loss is rapid and not progressive and limited to dopaminergic cells, and drugs that protect against toxin-induced cell death have not translated into neuroprotective therapies in humans. Gene mutations identified in rare familial forms of PD encode proteins whose functions overlap widely with the known molecular pathways in sporadic disease and these have again expanded our knowledge of the neurodegenerative process but again have so far failed to yield effective models of sporadic disease when translated into animals. We seem to be missing some key parts of the jigsaw, the trigger event starting many years earlier in the disease process, and what we are looking at now is merely part of a downstream process that is the end stage of neuronal death.

Highlights

This review summarizes the key pathological and clinical features of Parkinson disease. The roles of genetics and predisposing and protective factors are highlighted. Currently known mechanisms of neurodegeneration are critically appraised. The current animal models of Parkinson disease are appraised. The difficulty of developing effective neuroprotective drugs when no good models exist is highlighted.

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