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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

Pros and cons of a prion-like pathogenesis in Parkinson's disease

Ruediger Hilker1*, Jonathan M Brotchie2 and Joab Chapman3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Neurology, Goethe University, Frankfurt/Main, Germany

2 Toronto Western Research Institute, Toronto Western Hospital, Toronto, Canada

3 Department of Neurology, Sheba Medical Center, Tel Aviv University, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Israel

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BMC Neurology 2011, 11:74  doi:10.1186/1471-2377-11-74

Published: 20 June 2011



Parkinson's disease (PD) is a slowly progressive neurodegenerative disorder which affects widespread areas of the brainstem, basal ganglia and cerebral cortex. A number of proteins are known to accumulate in parkinsonian brains including ubiquitin and α-synuclein. Prion diseases are sporadic, genetic or infectious disorders with various clinical and histopathological features caused by prion proteins as infectious proteinaceous particles transmitting a misfolded protein configuration through brain tissue. The most important form is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease which is associated with a self-propagating pathological precursor form of the prion protein that is physiologically widely distributed in the central nervous system.


It has recently been found that α-synuclein may behave similarly to the prion precursor and propagate between cells. The post-mortem proof of α-synuclein containing Lewy bodies in embryonic dopamine cells transplants in PD patient suggests that the misfolded protein might be transmitted from the diseased host to donor neurons reminiscent of prion behavior. The involvement of the basal ganglia and brainstem in the degenerative process are other congruencies between Parkinson's and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. However, a number of issues advise caution before categorizing Parkinson's disease as a prion disorder, because clinical appearance, brain imaging, cerebrospinal fluid and neuropathological findings exhibit fundamental differences between both disease entities. Most of all, infectiousness, a crucial hallmark of prion diseases, has never been observed in PD so far. Moreover, the cellular propagation of the prion protein has not been clearly defined and it is, therefore, difficult to assess the molecular similarities between the two disease entities.


At the current state of knowledge, the molecular pathways of transmissible pathogenic proteins are not yet fully understood. Their exact involvement in the pathophysiology of prion disorders and neurodegenerative diseases has to be further investigated in order to elucidate a possible overlap between both disease categories that are currently regarded as distinct entities.