The most common genetic cause of Parkinson's disease (PD) is genetic mutations in the LRRK2 gene. However, the normal physiological role of this gene in the brain remains unclear. In a recent study headed by Brigham and Women's Hospital principal investigator, Jie Shen, PhD, of the Department of Neurology, the team uncovers the essential role of LRRK in the brain during aging that may help to shed light on the causes of PD in human patients. The findings are published in the journal Neuron.
LRRK gene knockout experiment in mice
The team generated LRRK-deficient mice where both the LRRK2 gene and the LRRK1 gene were inactivated using a genetic technique called gene knock out. These mice showed signs of age-dependent dopaminergic (DA) neuron degeneration. Surprisingly, this double knock out, where two genes are simultaneously rendered inoperative, caused mice to exhibit earlier mortality and body-weight loss but largely normal brain-weight. Mice with only one gene knocked out did not develop the age-dependent DA neuron degeneration that the double knock out mice experienced.
"A logical explanation for the lack of phenotypes in LRRK2 knockout mice was that the LRRK1 gene is still there to carry out normal LRRK function and compensate for the loss of LRRK2," said Shen. "So we generated the double knock out used in this study. With both LRRK genes removed, the double knockout mice lost the LRRK1 protection of the brain and developed age dependent degeneration."
In the study published in Neuron, the research team reports age-dependent, significant DA neuron degeneration in double knock out mice accompanied by several other complications including impaired autophagy-lysosomal pathways. Further analysis revealed increased programmed cell death, or apoptosis, and higher levels of alpha-synuclein, a hallmark of PD.
"These findings revealed an essential role of LRRK in the survival of DA neurons and in the regulation of the autophagy-lysosomal pathway in the aging brain," said Shen.