Obesity is a well-known risk factor in diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Now, scientists are finding links between obesity and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease (PD) as well.
PD is caused when dopamine-producing nerve cells die off in a part of the brain that governs movement. In the November 11 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, a team led by Tamas L. Horvath, D.V.M., Ph.D., chair and professor in the section of comparative medicine, and also professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences and of neurobiology, conclude that ghrelin, a hormone produced by the stomach, can protect these neurons from death, and that obesity-related declines in ghrelin may raise the risk of PD.
Dopamine cells in mice lacking ghrelin that were exposed to a cell-killing toxin died off in substantially greater numbers than in normal mice; administration of ghrelin reversed this effect.
Because this hormone originates from the stomach, it is circulating normally in the body,” Horvath says, “so it could easiliy be used to boost resistance to Parkinson's or it could be used to slow the development of the disease.”