Study links appendix to origin of Parkinson's

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Having your appendix removed early in life may decrease the likeliness of developing Parkinson's disease or slow its progression, a new study out of the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids found.

The study, “The vermiform appendix impacts the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease,” was published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine. VARI says the study was the largest and most comprehensive of its kind.

According to the study's findings, an appendectomy early in life reduced the risk of developing Parkinson's by 19 percent for most people. That figure was 25 percent for people in rural communities, who are believed to be more prone to Parkinson's because of exposure to pesticides.

Additionally, the study found that in the cases where people without appendixes developed Parkinson's, they were diagnosed an average of 3.6 years later than others.

Researchers explained it's because the appendix is a "reservoir" for particular abnormal proteins linked to Parkinson's.

“Our results point to the appendix as a site of origin for Parkinson’s and provide a path forward for devising new treatment strategies that leverage the gastrointestinal tract’s role in the development of the disease,” the study's senior author, Dr. Viviane Labrie of VARI, said in a statement.

The effect was only apparent when the appendix was removed early in life. Having the appendix removed after the disease developed had no effect on its progression. Appendectomies also had no effect in the small percentage of patients whose Parkinson's was linked to a hereditary genetic mutation.

The study also found clumps of the protein, called alpha-synuclein, in the appendixes of healthy people of all ages as well as people with Parkinson's. It was previously thought that the clumped proteins were only found in the latter.

“We were surprised that pathogenic forms of alpha-synuclein were so pervasive in the appendixes of people both with and without Parkinson’s. It appears that these aggregates — although toxic when in the brain — are quite normal when in the appendix. This clearly suggests their presence alone cannot be the cause of the disease,” Labrie said in the statement.

She said the discovery inspired further research about what factors lead to the development of Parkinson's.

In addition to studying the alpha-synuclein proteins in the appendix, researchers combed through two health databases — the Parkinson's Progression Marker Initiative, which covers the U.S., Europe, Israel and Australia, and the Swedish National Patient Registry — to reach their findings.

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