May 11, 2021

Promising results from the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WiNPRC) are giving hope to the millions of people who live with Parkinson’s disease (PD). By grafting neurons from monkeys, WiNPRC researchers relieved the debilitating movement and depression symptoms associated with the disease.

The researchers used induced pluripotent stem cells from the monkeys’ own bodies to make dopaminergic neurons. which produce dopamine, a chemical that transmits signals between nerve cells. PD damages these neurons and disrupts the signals, making it progressively harder for people who have PD to coordinate their muscles for even simple movements and causing rigidity, slowness and tremors, which are the disease’s hallmark symptoms. Patients — especially those in earlier stages of Parkinson’s — are typically treated with drugs, such as L-DOPA, to increase dopamine production.

“Those drugs work well for many patients, but the effect doesn’t last,” says Marina Emborg, a Parkinson’s researcher at WiNPRC. “Eventually, as the disease progresses and their motor symptoms get worse, they are back to not having enough dopamine, and side effects of the drugs appear.”

To develop additional treatment options, the researchers used real-time magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)  to inject millions of dopamine-producing neurons and supporting cells into each monkey’s striatum, an area of the brain that is depleted of dopamine as a consequence of the ravaging effects of Parkinson’s.

Half the monkeys received cells from other monkeys (an allogenic transplant), and the other half received grafts made from their own induced pluripotent stem cells (called an autologous transplant). The allogeneic monkeys’ symptoms remained unchanged or worsened, but the autologous monkeys began making significant improvements within six months and even more within a year — dopamine levels doubled for some and tripled for others.

Emborg says examples of the improvements included the autologous animals moving more and grabbing food much faster and easier. She adds, “Although Parkinson’s is typically classified as a movement disorder, anxiety and depression are typical, too. Symptoms that resemble depression and anxiety — pacing, disinterest in others and even in favorite treats — abated after the autologous grafts grew in.”

These promising results add to the growing body of NPRC research into improving lives for people who live with PD. Read more about our PD research here.

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