Neuroscience Trials Australia CEO Dr Tina Soulis has traversed the globe attending conferences over the past several months, connecting with established and emerging leaders from the sector. From large-scale international industry events, such as BIO, to more niche and specialised meetings, including the Neurotech Investing and Partnering Conference, Tina has heard about and discussed the latest health innovations and most exciting investment opportunities in neuroscience research. Throughout this patchwork of different conferences around the world and across several axes of the drug and medtech development timeline, a string of recurring topics has revealed itself- a strong pattern of trends. Here, we briefly unpack what Tina sees as the three hottest trends in neuroscience research. This is Part II of a three-part series.
The connection between the gut, its microbes and the brain is an emerging and exciting new area of research that links the digestive system with mental health and neurodegenerative diseases. Only now are we beginning to understand the complexity and the extent with which the gut and its resident microbes (the microbiome) communicate with the brain via the nervous system, immune system and endocrine (hormone) system. Only now are we beginning to understand how the relationship between the gut and the brain impacts overall health, plays a role in disease and can be potentially exploited to modify or treat diseases and conditions.
One area in which this research is making great strides is in Parkinson’s Disease (PD). New research shows that PD may in fact begin in the gut. Although the ultimate cause of PD is still somewhat a mystery, the protein alpha-synuclein has been demonstrated to likely play a key role. Found throughout the nervous system, alpha-synuclein undergoes misfolding in PD and forms pathological clumps with other misfolded proteins in nerve cells. In a recent publication, misfolded alpha-synuclein injected into the gut of mice induced misfolding of the protein all the way up the Vagus nerve. The misfolded alpha-synuclein then moved into the brain and spread across multiple brain regions, effecting motor skills, anxiety and cognition – symptoms found in PD. When the Vagus nerve was cut, the misfolded protein couldn’t travel to the brain and the neurological symptoms did not occur.
There are signs that this link also occurs in humans, where published research shows that severing part of the Vagus nerve appears to reduce the risk of developing PD, but only when the more aggressive type of vagotomy is performed.. However, whether PD actually begins in the gut before the nervous system becomes involved is still hotly contested. Regardless, if early signs of PD can be detected in the gut before irreversible damage to brain tissue occurs, a whole new opportunity for preventative or therapeutic interventions opens up.
“Research into the effects of the microbiome on mood and anxiety disorders, autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease are also being studied intensively at the moment. We already possess the ability to modulate the gut’s microflora with foods like probiotics and faecal transplants. Research helps us better guide these interventions so we may be able to support or even enhance current treatments relatively easily and cheaply, or even create a new class of therapeutics entirely,” said Neuroscience Trials Australia CEO, Dr Tina Soulis.
Human disease can no longer be studied in terms of a single affected organ or system. Current research looks at complex interactions not only in lifestyle and environmental factors, but also within the body across tissues, organs and systems. Understanding the role of the microbiome-gut-brain connection in neurological and psychiatric disorders will provide new targets for early detection and intervention. This could revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat currently incurable diseases like Parkinson’s Disease.
Stay tuned for Part III of our blog series on the hottest trends in neuroscience research.