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NIAID

For decades, scientists have suspected that the immune system is involved in Parkinson's disease but didn't know how because the body's defenses don't typically target neurons. Researchers now report that immune cells may be attacking a protein that builds up in the brain when someone has the disease. The finding suggests an avenue for new treatment by blocking the immune response with drugs.

What they did: Researchers analyzed blood from 67 patients with Parkinson's disease and 36 healthy people, and found that in people with the disease the body's immune T cells recognized neurons displaying specific fragments of a protein called alpha-synuclein, which accumulates in the brain when someone has Parkinson's. In healthy people, there was no response.

How it might work: The reaction to specific pieces of the protein is key - it could explain why immune reaction is localized to particular neurons. The immune system may recognize alpha-synuclein as foreign and try to clear it, in the process destroying dopamine-producing neurons where the protein accumulates. Those neurons are at the center of Parkinson's - depleting dopamine causes the disease's hallmark tremors. Most neurons don't produce the molecules that the immune system recognizes and then attacks - but the dopamine-producing ones do.

"It's a novel idea. If it holds up, it will shift the paradigm for understanding the disease," says NIH's Mark Cookson, who wasn't involved in the study.

Big question: Does the immune system target these neurons or is the reaction is inadvertent? That would indicate whether the reaction can be blocked with drugs - something the researchers plan to test.

Go deeper

4 hours ago - World

Biden seeks to reboot U.S. sanctions policy

Sanctions increased under Obama and dramatically under Trump. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The Biden administration is rethinking the U.S. approach to sanctions after four years of Donald Trump imposing and escalating them.

The big picture: Sanctions are among the most powerful tools the U.S. has to influence its adversaries’ behavior without using force. But they frequently fail to bring down regimes or moderate their behavior, and they can increase the suffering of civilians and resentment of the U.S.

4 hours ago - World

Merkel's farewell spoiled by Poland crisis at EU summit

One last awkward EU "family photo." Photo: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Angela Merkel took up her vaunted mantle as Europe's crisis manager for what could be the last time tonight, as she urged the EU to find compromise in its showdown with Poland.

Why it matters: The European Commission has threatened to withhold over $40 billion in pandemic recovery funds after Poland's constitutional tribunal — stacked with loyalists from the ruling right-wing populist party — rejected the principle that EU law has primacy over national law.

Republicans who put it all on the line

Rep. Nancy Mace speaks with reporters after voting to hold Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

A small contingent of House Republicans risked their political futures on Thursday, they say, in the name of constitutional responsibility.

Why it matters: The nine Republicans who voted to hold former Trump aide Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress are now in peril of becoming political pariahs. They've opened themselves up to potential primary challengers and public attacks from their party's kingmaker — former President Trump.

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