Immune system’s role in Parkinson’s disease.

Immune system's role in Parkinson's disease.

The Role of the Immune System in Parkinson’s Disease

What role does the immune system play in Parkinson’s disease? Image credit: TonyBaggett/Getty Images

Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition, has long been considered a brain disorder. However, recent research has unveiled the potential involvement of the body’s immune system in the development of this debilitating condition. The immune system, responsible for protecting the body from invaders and maintaining overall health, has connections to various organs, including the brain. When the immune system is compromised, it can impact mental health, sleep patterns, and make individuals more susceptible to infections and diseases.

While the exact causes of Parkinson’s disease remain unknown, scientists have started exploring the potential links between the immune system and this condition. By understanding how the immune system may contribute to Parkinson’s disease, researchers hope to develop new therapies and preventive measures. To shed light on this field of study, Medical News Today interviewed six experts who shared their valuable insights.

The Role of Inflammation in Parkinson’s

One key aspect of immune system involvement in Parkinson’s disease is inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been associated with various health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, mental health concerns, and brain-related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Julie Pilitsis, a neurosurgeon, suggests that the aging process weakens the immune system, which may explain its involvement in diseases that mainly affect older individuals, such as Parkinson’s disease. She also highlights the role of certain genes and exposure to chemicals like pesticides in triggering inflammation and increasing the risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. James Beck, a Parkinson’s disease expert, draws a parallel with multiple sclerosis, another brain disorder that involves modulating the immune system. While the precise reasons for immune system involvement in Parkinson’s disease remain mysterious, Dr. Beck hypothesizes that it could be a result of autoimmune responses or infections elsewhere in the body that trigger an immune response involving the brain.

Inflammation-driven Mechanisms in Parkinson’s

Delving further into the connection between inflammation and Parkinson’s disease, researchers have proposed various mechanisms in which the immune system may play a role. Impairment of the blood-brain barrier, which allows easier access for immune system components into brain tissue, is one theory in explaining the immune system’s involvement. This exposure to antigens not previously encountered may cause agitation in the immune system, exacerbating inflammation. Additionally, abnormal protein aggregates and impaired cellular recycling pathways have been identified as potential triggers for immune system responses in the brain.

Dr. Alessandro Sette’s study provides evidence that immune system activity in a specific brain region called the substantia nigra contributes to the development of Parkinson’s disease. The immune system may mistakenly attack the substantia nigra, believing it to be foreign or dangerous—a phenomenon known as autoimmunity. Dr. Tan Eng King highlights the challenges in establishing the cause-and-effect relationship between neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration in Parkinson’s disease. Laboratory tests have shown immune cell abnormalities and alterations in pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory markers among Parkinson’s patients.

Potential for Future Therapies

As researchers further unravel the connection between the immune system and Parkinson’s disease, they believe it holds promise for potential treatment breakthroughs. Recognizing the impact of the immune response triggered by alpha-synuclein accumulation in the brain, Dr. Rebecca Gilbert suggests that controlling the immune response itself could be a viable therapeutic approach. Existing medications that target inflammation may hold the key to managing Parkinson’s disease. Researchers are exploring options to reduce inflammatory signals in immune cells through drug interventions.

Moreover, understanding the immune system’s role in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease offers the potential to identify individuals at risk before the disease manifests. Personalized treatments tailored to a patient’s genetic profile could be initiated, leveraging existing anti-inflammatory medications or novel therapies. The American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA) funds research in this area, exploring the use of fat-altering drugs to reduce inflammatory signals.

Modifiable Lifestyle Factors for Parkinson’s Risk

While the exact cause of Parkinson’s disease remains elusive, individuals can make certain lifestyle changes to protect their immune system and potentially reduce the risk of developing the condition. Observational evidence suggests that exercise reduces inflammation, making it a beneficial lifestyle modification. Dr. Gilbert points out that exercise has positive effects on both the risk of Parkinson’s disease and the symptoms of established cases. Additionally, avoiding excessive alcohol and nicotine consumption, managing stress levels, and adhering to dietary patterns like the Mediterranean or MIND diets, which prioritize whole grains, vegetables, nuts, legumes, berries, and healthy fats, can support brain health.

Understanding the potential influence of the immune system on Parkinson’s disease offers new avenues for research and treatment development. As scientists continue to explore this connection, there is hope that interventions targeting the immune system could provide relief and possibly prevention for individuals at risk of Parkinson’s disease. By embracing modifiable lifestyle factors, individuals can take proactive steps towards preserving their immune system health and overall well-being.


“Although Parkinson’s disease is generally considered a brain disorder, recent research has found that the body’s immune system may play a role in the development of this condition. Medical News Today spoke to Parkinson’s disease experts about why this might be. (Medical News Today)”