Researchers have found that Parkinson’s patients whose cognitive ability is intact, but who have a specific genetic variant, have significantly less gray matter in the regions of their brain that are related to dementia.
The study with that finding, “Reduced gray matter volume in cognitively preserved COMTÂ 158Val/Val Parkinson’s disease patients and its association with cognitive decline,” was published in Brain Imaging and Behavior.
Several mutations in the COMT gene have been associated with the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. This gene provides instructions for making catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), an enzyme that helps break down certain chemical messengers like dopamine.
The most common alteration in the DNA sequence that makes up the COMT gene is the Val158Met mutation in which a valine (Val) is replaced by a methionine (Met) at position 158. Val and Met are both amino acids, also known as the protein’s building blocks.
Every individual has two copies of each gene, one inherited from each parent. Therefore, a person can have two Val’s in the same position at both COMT gene copies (also known as the Val/Val genotype), a Val in one gene and a Met in the other (Val/Met genotype), or two Met’s (Met/Met genotype). Scientists use the word “genotype” to describe a person’s genetic constitution.
Changes in COMT’s molecular structure, lead to high (Val/Val), intermediate (Val/Met) and low (Met/Met) enzymatic activity.
The Val158Met mutation in the COMT gene has been associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline in Parkinson’s disease, particularly in people with greater COMT activity. When this happens, there is too much neurotransmitter degradation, thus leading to reduced levels of dopamine and affecting basic brain functions such as motor coordination and memory.
The brain is composed of gray and white matter. The first consists of cell bodies — the control center of neurons — while the latter is made up of nerve cell projections, known as axons or fibers, connecting distinct parts of gray matter.
A Spanish team of researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a non-invasive imaging technology, to investigate a possible structural brain compromise in Parkinson’s patients with highly active COMT activity that could explain their increased risk for subsequent cognitive impairment.
The study included 120 newly diagnosed Parkinson’s patients with normal cognition (who were not previously treated for the disease) and 48 healthy controls from the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative database.
Results showed that there was a widespread, significant reduction in cerebral gray matter volume in patients with the Val/Val genotype. They observed alterations in the fronto-subcortical and posterior-cortical brain regions, where motor and cognitive functions originate.
Gray matter volume at some of the identified regions was associated with cognitive decline in a four-year follow-up period, suggesting that gray matter volume reduction during the early stages of disease predisposes Val/Val patients to cognitive impairment.
Nonetheless, gray matter volume analysis at one-year follow-up was not increased in Val/Val subjects, in comparison to Val/Met and Met/Met participants, indicating a somewhat stable atrophy in the Val/Val subset and that those brain changes might already be present prior to diagnosis.
The team believes their research “sparks the need to further characterize the association between a modified COMT enzymatic effect and a structural brain compromise in the early stages of [Parkinson’s disease].”