Scientists have found a new clue that Parkinson's disease may get its start not in the brain but in the gut—maybe in the appendix. People who had their appendix removed early in life had a lower risk of getting the tremor-inducing brain disease decades later, researchers report. Why? A peek at surgically removed appendix tissue shows this tiny organ, often considered useless, seems to be a storage depot for an abnormal protein—one that, if it somehow makes its way into the brain, becomes a hallmark of Parkinson's, per the AP. The big surprise, per studies published in the journal Science Translational Medicine: Lots of people may harbor clumps of that worrisome protein in their appendix, both young and old, and people with healthy brains as well as those with Parkinson's.
For years, scientists have hypothesized about what might cause the gut-Parkinson's connection. One main theory: Maybe bad "alpha-synuclein" proteins can travel from nerve fibers in the GI tract up the vagus nerve, which connects the body's major organs to the brain. Abnormal alpha-synuclein is toxic to brain cells involved with movement. But don't look for a surgeon just yet. "We're not saying to go out and get an appendectomy," stresses neuroscientist Viviane Labrie of Michigan's Van Andel Institute. After all, there are plenty of people who have no appendix, yet still develop Parkinson's. Still, the findings promise to re-energize related research. "This is a great piece of the puzzle," a Parkinson's specialist not tied to the study says. "It's a fundamental clue." (The appendix may have once been more useful.)