Parkinson’s disease is one of very few common health conditions scientists still don’t know how to treat. Existing Parkinson’s medication only helps the brain compensate for the nerve loss brought about by the disease, but it cannot stop or prevent the actual brain cells from dying off. Meanwhile, Parkinson’s remains the most rapidly expanding neurological disease in the world, with over 10 million people suffering from it worldwide. So saying that there is an urgent need for an effective Parkinson’s treatment is a massive understatement.
A research collaboration between the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine in Suwon, South Korea found a potential for such a treatment in nature. A plant-based compound called farnesol may be capable of doing something no existing Parkinson’s medication can - prevent the nerves affected by Parkinson’s disease from perishing.
Neuronal loss and Parkinson’s disease
In order to understand how this natural compound works, we need to explain a bit about the neurology behind Parkinson’s disease. As you may or may not know, Parkinson’s disease targets a specific brain region called the substantia nigra, which is populated by neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine.
As the disease progresses, more and more of these dopamine-producing brain cells perish, which manifests itself in worsening tremors, cognitive decline, muscle stiffness, and loss of balance and coordination. These are all hallmark symptoms of Parkinson's disease. To learn more about Parkinson's symptoms, read How to Detect Parkinson's: A Guide to Early Signs.
Farnesol is a natural compound capable of reducing nerve loss
Current treatments can replenish the dopamine in the brain and improve general brain function, which alleviates some of the symptoms, but no existing medication is able to treat the cause - the nerve cell loss itself. This is where farnesol may be helpful. This compound is naturally present in many plants, and it is commonly found in certain essential oils (lemongrass, citronella, and balsam essential oil) and even in perfume.
The research found that this compound can prevent nerve loss by engaging the brain’s natural protective mechanisms on a molecular level. To be technical, taking farnesol orally boosted the production of a protein called PGC-1 alpha that protects brain cells from damage and death.
Currently, the effectiveness of farnesol was only tested in Parkinson’s models in mice, but the results are highly promising. The researchers used farnesol as a supplement because it has to be taken internally and cross the blood-brain barrier to work. Since taking essential oils or perfume internally is toxic, they had to extract farnesol in order to make it safe for the subjects. After supplementing the diet of mice with farnesol for just a week, they saw a marked improvement in strength and coordination, and subsequent tests revealed that the mice treated with farnesol had double the amount of healthy dopamine neurons than mice that received no treatment.
Researchers are yet to ascertain the efficacy of farnesol in humans, but this natural compound could very much be the key to a revolutionary new treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
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