Pentagon Awards $4.37M Grant to Probe Possible Link Between Air Pollution, Parkinson’s

Ana de Barros, PhD avatar

by Ana de Barros, PhD |

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The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a multi-institutional research team $4.37 million in grants to study the possible role of airborne pollutants as triggers for Parkinson’s disease.

“It increasingly appears that a complicated mix of biological and environmental factors contribute to Parkinson’s,” Dr. Patrik Brundin,  director of the Van Andel Institute’s (VAI) Center for Neurodegenerative Science, said in a press release. “Unraveling this tangled web will go a long way in helping us develop ways to evaluate an individual’s risk for the disease as well as developing therapies to prevent, slow or stop its onset and progress.”

Brundin will partner with Dr. Caleb Finch and Dr. Todd Morgan of the University of Southern California, and Dr. Honglei Chen of Michigan State University, to undertake the four-year study. The effort will be supported by three Pentagon project grants: $1.4 million for Brundin, $1.45 million to Finch and $1.5 million to Chen.

The funds are based on previous studies conducted by Finch and Morgan, which have shown that airborne particulates cause inflammation that spreads from the nose into the brain in disease models, and on studies of Parkinson’s incidence conducted by Chen.

The Van Andel Institute is an independent non-profit research and science organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. According to its researchers, increasing evidence suggests that inflammation in the nose — which is directly connected to the brain — could be among the first triggers of Parkinson’s.

The researchers will now join forces to study how long-term exposure to airborne particulates relates to Parkinson’s onset later in life. Some 90 percent of Parkinson’s patients eventually have difficulty with their sense of smell; many have lost it entirely before their diagnosis.

“The nose is a direct gateway into the body and, in fact, it is one of first places we see evidence of Parkinson’s pathology in the form of abnormal alpha-synuclein proteins,” said Brundin. “From there, it appears that these proteins move from the olfactory bulb deeper into the brain, leaving a path a destruction that manifests as symptoms such as loss of sense of smell and, eventually, motor deficits.”

This means that pollution could be among low-level contributors of Parkinson’s that, in conjunction with genetics and age, could increase the risk of disease.

Based on Chen’s 2005 research, the team will begin by analyzing if anti-inflammatory medications like the commonly used ibuprofen can potentially slow Parkinson’s progression. Additionally, MSDC-0160, an investigational anti-diabetic drug, will also be studied, as it has shown promising results in slowing Parkinson’s progress in laboratory models of the disease, according to a 2016 study led by Brundin.

Researchers will compare people who have lost their sense of smell in late adulthood to people who have not, and will look for clues and meaningful correlations in their genetic profiles and health histories, including use of anti-inflammatory medications.

The Pentagon has funded Parkinson’s research since the 1990s, since several risk factors for the disease are of particular interest to the military. These include exposure to agriculture-type chemicals, traumatic head injury, depression and prolonged mental stress, and disruption of autonomic nervous function. Such programs aim to increase understanding of these risk factors and, ultimately, find a cure.