Every day scientists find new reasons for us to be good to our gut bacteria. There are more than 100 trillion bacterial cells living and working in the human body (vastly outnumbering our human cells) and if those microbes are unhealthy or out of balance it can impact our well-being. Just recently, researchers in Finland discovered that people with Parkinson’s disease have distinctly different gut bacteria*—and finding out more may one day help with treatment.
Parkinson’s disease affects nearly 1 million people in the United States and close to 4 million people across the globe. The progressive disorder affects the central nervous system and typically comes on later in life, but as of now there is no cure. Parkinson’s causes problems with motor function, and symptoms included trembling, loss of balance, changes in speech, and muscle stiffness.
For this study, scientists looked at nearly 150 men and women, half of whom have Parkinson’s while the others were considered “healthy controls”. When they analyzed the gut bacteria of both groups, they found fewer bacteria from the Prevotellaceae family in the Parkinson’s group as well as large numbers of Enterobacteriaceae bacteria, which appeared to be associated with more severe symptoms. For example, walking and maintaining balance were notably more difficult in patients with higher levels of these bacteria.
These clear differences in gut bacteria intrigued researchers, especially since gastrointestinal problems—mainly constipation—are often seen in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, before the more pronounced motor symptoms begin to manifest. And, because gut bacteria interact so closely with the nervous system, scientists wonder if altering the bacterial environment in the gut may one day help protect against the disease.
Lead author Dr. Filip Scheperjans and his team plan to continue studying the same group of patients to further examine the link between gut health and Parkinson’s disease. They hope to determine whether or not the differences in gut bacteria are there even before the onset of the disease—like a marker—and if they change as the disease advances. The answers may one day help doctors improve the diagnosis and treatment of Parkinson’s disease.