Microorganisms living in gastrointestinal tracts may foretell diagnoses of debilitating diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

Researchers at UMass Lowell’s Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences are exploring how the gut microbiome contributes to the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. This research could lead to earlier detection and new treatments for people with those diseases, which impact millions of people in the United States and around the world.

In a new study, public health Associate Professor Natalia Palacios found that healthy, anti-inflammatory bacteria were less abundant among people who were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“These species of bacteria are known for their role in reducing inflammation in the gut,” said Palacios. “This depletion supports a potential link between gut inflammation and Parkinson’s disease. The fact that we see these changes before a diagnosis suggests that, in the future, the gut microbiome may serve as a biomarker for identifying the earliest phases of the disease. This has the potential to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment, as early detection is often key to developing new therapies.”

The results of the study, which was funded by a $2.1 million grant by the National Institutes of Health, highlight the critical role of the gut-brain axis, a two-way communication system that connects the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system.

Palacios and fellow researchers at Harvard University conducted a comprehensive analysis of the genetic material found in the gut of 420 participants from two large epidemiological studies – the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. From this group, they found a consistently lower abundance of certain types of anti-inflammatory, anaerobic bacteria in people with Parkinson’s disease. This change was also noticeable among study participants who experienced early signs of Parkinson’s disease, which can predate the onset of the classic motor symptoms by many years.

However, Palacios isn’t done interpreting how the gut reflects of the body overall.

Funded by a new $2 million grant from the NIH, Palacios and biomedical and nutritional sciences Professor Katherine Tucker are conducting the largest comprehensive study of the microbiome in Latinos to better understand the link between the gut microbiome and Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers will study participants in the ongoing Boston Puerto Rican Health Study (BPRHS), a long-term research project launched in 2004 to examine the roles of stress, social support, diet, health behavior and genetic predisposition in relation to health disparities in Puerto Rican adults.

Tucker leads the BPHRS as the director of the UMass Lowell Center for Population Health.

“Puerto Ricans, who suffer from health and social disparities, have a 50% greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared with the general population,” said Tucker. “We have been conducting cognitive assessments and measuring the diets and health outcomes in this cohort for almost 20 years, so we have a lot of data for this new study.”

“The results of our study could lead to novel biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease, as well as a better understanding of what causes the disease,” Palacios said.

With updated cognitive assessments and the analysis of MRI brain scans and blood and stool samples, the research team will identify the gut composition in each participant, the function of each species of bacteria, and any harmful molecules that could cause disruption in the brain.

What the researchers learn from the study could impact millions of people: More than 6 million Americans are living with the brain disorder, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. By 2050, that number is projected to grow to 12.7 million.


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