Fat in the brain could be key to new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, says researcher

A U of A neuroscientist is leading the way toward better understanding the role lipids play in neurodegenerative diseases.


Maria Ioannou is leading foundational research on understanding lipids in the brain that could reveal new targets for therapies to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. (Photo: Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry)

Fat in the brain may hold the key to understanding how Parkinson’s disease works, according to a University of Alberta researcher heading up a project aimed at discovering new mechanisms that drive the disease.

Maria Ioannou, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and Canada Research Chair in Brain Lipid Cell Biology, and her team will explore how changes to lipids in the brain contribute to Parkinson’s. 

Lipids are fatty substances such as cholesterol and oils in the body that are crucial for brain function, as the organ contains the second largest amount of lipids found in humans. The cellular substance also forms part of the structure of cells and works as a signalling molecule and antioxidant in the brain.

“Until recently we lacked the ability to study lipids in the same way we have for proteins,” says Ioannou.

“We’ve always known that lipids are just as important, and now that tool advancement is catching up, it’s reinvigorated the field and there’s a lot to do.”

To study lipids in cells at the ground level, Ioannou’s lab uses cells cultured from rodents and Parkinson’s disease patients. This allows them to modulate lipids to recreate the environment these cells experience in the diseased brain. 

A strength of the study comes from real-time imaging of cell processes as they happen, Ioannou notes. “This reveals important information about the cellular dynamics that cannot be fully appreciated with a snapshot in time and space.”

Neuroscientist Maria Ioannou describes her research looking at lipids in the brain and how they may be related to neurodegenerative diseases. (Video: Geoff McMaster)

Ioannou’s project is one of 13 U of A-led studies receiving funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (see below). Ioannou’s team is receiving a project grant of $1,055,700 to fund their lipid research.

“CIHR funding is monumental because it gives us the opportunity to dive deep into these projects that we are already invested in and finish them using the best methods and model systems available,” says Ioannou. 

“This will also reveal new and unexpected project directions to build from in the future.”

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder in which the cells that produce the chemical dopamine die and affect movement, causing tremors, fatigue and difficulty with speech, among other symptoms. About 10,000 Albertans live with Parkinson’s, and there is currently no cure for the neurodegenerative disease. 

At the cellular level, one of the features of Parkinson’s is the clumping of alpha-synuclein, a protein found in the brain. Scientists today are seeing the new role that fat metabolism plays in Parkinson’s disease, but its role in the spread of alpha-synuclein is still unknown and will be studied by Ioannou’s lab to reveal new targets for potential therapies. 

“What we learn from this project can be applied to other neurodegenerative diseases as well, because lipid disturbances aren’t specific to Parkinson’s disease,” she notes. 

Ioannou is a member of The Group on Molecular and Cell Biology of Lipids, the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute and the Women and Children's Health Research Institute.

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