Classically, when we look down the microscope at someone who has Parkinson’s disease and look at their brain, we can see the cells that are dying. These are the dopamine producing cells predominantly, and inside the cell there seems to be this abnormal aggregation of protein – and that protein when people have studied it is called side nuclear or alpha-synuclein protein. When it was first observed down the microscope by Frederick Levy or Louis – as we pronounce it today, it became known as the Louis.
The pathological hallmark of Parkinson’s disease and some of the related diseases, such as multiple system atrophy and Lewy body dementia, also have Lewy bodies in them. This is alpha-synuclein. It’s worth noting that alpha-synuclein is a normal protein in the brain, but it goes rogue. So it becomes tangled and I often say that it is a bit like folding your clothes. If you fold your clothes and nicely put them into a draw the draw will work properly. However, if you tangle up those clothes and throw them into the drawer, the drawer gets blocked up and doesn’t work properly. And this is what’s happening inside the cells.
What we don’t know is whether Lewy bodies or alpha-synuclein is a good guy or a bad guy. The fact of the matter is that some people might say “Well these tangles, they’re inside dying cells. They must be killing those cells?”. However, the other thought is that perhaps the Lewy body or the alpha-synuclein is trying to save the cell. It might try and tangle up, and take some toxin out of the cell, and in so doing leave the cell alive but not functioning properly for long and ultimately their cell death. And this is important because it forms the basis of some of our future therapies targeting Lewy bodies and alpha-synuclein.