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The Gut-Brain Axis: A New Frontier in Parkinson's Disease Research

Parkinson's Disease is often synonymous with tremors and impaired motor skills, but this degenerative brain disorder, affecting 12,000 people in NZ and 10 million worldwide, is far more complex than its overt symptoms suggest. Constipation is an often overlooked but significant symptom of Parkinson's Disease, manifesting years before the more commonly recognised motor symptoms. Ongoing gastrointestinal issues are an early warning sign of disruptions in the gut-brain axis and an intriguing area of Parkinson’s Disease research that plays a role in the onset and progression of the disease.


The Microbiome: A Hidden Universe Within Us


The gut microbiome is a bustling metropolis of microbes, each with its role in nutrient absorption, immune function, and mental health. This microbial community is not just a passive resident; it's an active participant in our well-being. The gut is implicated in various conditions, from metabolic disorders like diabetes to autoimmune diseases and certain cancers.


The Gut-Brain Communication Highway


The gut and the brain are in constant dialogue, thanks to a complex network of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals not only regulate mood but also play a crucial role in motor functions, which are often compromised in Parkinson’s Disease. The gut produces these neurotransmitters, acting as a biochemical mediator between the brain and the body.


When this gut-brain communication is disrupted—often due to an imbalance in the gut microbiome—it can trigger a cascade of inflammatory responses. This inflammation can spread throughout the body and reach the brain, setting the stage for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.


The Microbiome and Parkinson's: A Two-Way Street


Recent research shows that individuals with Parkinson’s Disease have a distinct gut microbiome composition compared to those without the disease. Certain bacterial species are found in abundance, while others are notably reduced. This microbial imbalance is not just a consequence of the disease but also a contributing factor. The gut microbiome's potential as a therapeutic target is increasingly acknowledged, offering a new avenue for slowing down or even halting the progression of Parkinson’s Disease.


The Power of Diet: Fibres and Fatty Acids


Dietary choices profoundly impact the gut microbiome and, by extension, Parkinson’s Disease. Foods rich in fibres, like spinach, artichokes, and asparagus, can enhance the production of short-chain fatty acids in the gut. These short-chain fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that modulate neurotransmitter levels, offering a dietary intervention strategy for Parkinson’s Disease patients.


Beyond Probiotics: The Future of Gut-Based Therapies


While probiotics have been the go-to for gut health, their limitations paved the way for more advanced treatments. Among these are faecal microbiota transplantation and psychobiotics, each offering unique advantages in managing Parkinson's Disease.


-       Faecal Microbiota Transplantation: A Reset Button for the Gut

Faecal Transplantation is akin to a system reset for your gut microbiome. It involves the transfer of faecal matter from a healthy donor into a patient's gastrointestinal tract. The procedure is particularly effective in treating conditions like Clostridium difficile infection. Preliminary studies indicate that faecal microbiotatransplantation improves gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms in Parkinson’s Disease patients, including quality of life and cognitive function. The procedure is generally considered safe but requires rigorous donor screening to prevent the transfer of pathogens or harmful bacteria.


-       Psychobiotics: The Mind-Gut Connection

Psychobiotics are a specialised subset of probiotics designed to influence mental health positively. These are not your garden-variety Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium strains; psychobiotics are specifically engineered to produce or modulate neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Early research suggests that these probiotics can ameliorate symptoms of anxiety and depression, which are often comorbid with Parkinson's Disease. The potential here is not just symptom relief but a targeted approach to mental well-being, which is crucial given the emotional and cognitive challenges Parkinson’s Disease patients frequently face.


The most exciting prospect lies in the potential synergy between these therapies. Imagine a treatment regimen that starts with faecal microbiota Transplantation resetting the gut microbiome, followed by a tailored psychobiotic regimen to boost mental health. This could offer a multi-pronged approach to managing Parkinson's Disease, addressing its physical and emotional dimensions.


The Take-Home Message


The gut-brain axis offers a revolutionary perspective on Parkinson's Disease, shifting the focus from the brain to an integrated approach that includes gut health. By understanding the intricate relationship between our gut microbiome and the brain, we open the door to innovative treatments beyond symptom management to address the root causes of this debilitating disease. The gut may very well be the frontier where the battle against Parkinson's is won, offering hope to millions affected by this condition worldwide.

Dr Victor Dieriks

Group Leader Synuclein Lab

Centre for Brain Research

The University of Auckland, New Zealand



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