Belgian researchers investigate role of gut flora in Parkinson’s
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Belgian researchers investigate role of gut flora in Parkinson’s

Actor Michael J. Fox, one of the leading advocates of Parkinson's research. © Michael J. Fox Foundation

A team of researchers from the university of Ghent, together with partners from the Ghent university hospital and the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) is currently investigating the influence of a person’s gut flora on the development of Parkinson’s disorder.

The gut biome – the entire population of bacteria and other organisms that inhabit a person’s intestines – is the new horizon of medicine. Researchers nowadays are looking at well-known diseases as well as disorders that remain a mystery through the lens of the flora and fauna of the gut.

And Parkinson’s is one of those disorders.

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a degeneration of the central nervous system that shows itself first as a motor disorder characterised first by tremor, degenerating into severe motor disability and eventually becoming associated with cognitive and behavioural problems.

One of the most prominent representatives of Parkinson’s these days is the TV and movie star Michael J. Fox.

The causes of the disorder remain unknown, and treatments largely symptomatic.

Now, the Ghent team of researchers are looking into the possible effects of the gut biome on the disorder, and the possibility of changing the character of the gut flora.

And the way that is done – anyone with an aversion to talk of gut flora should look away now – involves faecal transplants.

Faecal transplant is exactly what it sounds like. Let lead researcher Roosmarijn Vandenbroucke explain:

We take bowel movements, mix them, dilute them with water and filter the whole thing. Then bring them into the small intestine with a tube through the nose and past the stomach.”

The transplants, needless to say, come from other people. The principle being that if the patient’s own gut biome is faulty in some way, transplants may being about the necessary changes.

At present the experiment involves 72 subjects, half of whom receive a transplant from another person, the other half a placebo, namely a self-transplant.

Previous research on mice with Parkinson’s already showed that adjusting the intestinal flora has a clear effect on the symptoms and the progression of the disease, Dr. Vandenbroucke explains.

There are several reasons to believe that this may also be the case with humans. The intestinal mucosa has its own nervous system, and is in contact with the upper brain. That explains, for example, why stress gives rise to stomach pain.”

The gut biome of Parkinson subjects is different to the norm and the study will try to find an answer to the question of whether that is a cause or an effect.

There is a link, that seems obvious, but is there a causal relationship?” Dr. Vandenbroucke asks.

We want to solve that question. We just have to do this research. And even if it doesn’t work out, we will learn a lot from it. We hope to solve part of the complex puzzle.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times