Those who are living with Parkinson’s disease or have a loved one who has PD will tell you how mentally and physically debilitating the illness can be. A group of researchers at the University of Leicester – MRC Toxicology Unit, led by Ivana Celardo, Susann Lehmann, Ana C. Costa and Miguel L. Martins, have identified the genes that could be used to treat Parkinson’s.

Some forms of Parkinson’s disease are due to a mutation in the gene PARKIN and PINK1 which play a huge role in mitochondrial quality control. In fruit flies that have developed mutations, these genes can accumulate defective mitochondria, and have displayed Parkinson’s-like symptoms, including the loss of neurons. By using the PINK1 and PARKIN mutant flies the researchers set out to find other genes by using a bioinformatics approach. This led them to find that the ATF4 gene plays a crucial role in the development of Parkinson’s disease. The ATF4 gene acts as a switch for the metabolism of mitochondria. As in, when the ATF4 gene is reduced in the flies, the mitochondrial genes in the flies drop too. This triggers many Parkinson’s like symptoms in the flies such as a drop in movement accuracy, dysfunctional mitochondria and a significant drop in lifespan. By increasing the ATF4 gene, researchers were able to improve mitochondrial function in the flies and prevented them from dying.

This finding is proof of the crucial role mitochondrial metabolism plays in neuron health. By discovering the network of genes that are responsible for orchestrating the process, researchers have identified new targets for a therapeutic approach in preventing neuron loss. Further research in human genes could someday lead to the prevention of Parkinson’s disease by delaying the neuronal loss that’s caused by Parkinson’s disease.