A single protein might be key to slowing the aging process

Researchers have known neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, are more likely to develop as we get older, and Parkinson’s affects men more than women. What they haven’t known is why.

That might change soon, thanks to a study from the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences.

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Age is the greatest risk factor for Parkinson’s disease, which causes progressive loss of dopamine neurons, with males at greater risk than females, the researchers wrote. The Parkinson’s Foundation reports men are 1.5 times more likely to have Parkinson’s disease than women.

According to their paper, published Thursday in the journal Aging Cell, the neuroscientists discovered a single protein — a glutamate transporter on the membrane of vesicles that carry dopamine in neurons — is key to “regulating sex differences in the brain’s vulnerability to age-related neuron loss.”

The protein — vesicular glutamate transporter, or VGLUT — “was more abundant in dopamine neurons of female fruit flies, rodents and human beings than in males, correlating with females’ greater resilience to age-related neuron loss and mobility deficiencies, the researchers found,” the university wrote in a press release.

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The researchers found that when they reduced VGLUT levels in female flies, it lowered the flies’ protection from neurodegeneration associated with aging.

“From flies to rodents to human beings, we found that VGLUT levels distinguish males from females during healthy aging,” said Zachary Freyberg, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s senior author and assistant professor of psychiatry and cell biology at the University of Pittsburgh. “The fact that this marker of dopamine neuron survival is conserved across the animal kingdom suggests that we are looking at a fundamental piece of biology. Understanding how this mechanism works can help prolong dopamine neuron resilience and delay aging.”

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, nearly 1 million people in the United States are living with Parkinson’s, with nearly 60,000 diagnosed each year. Although your risk increases with age, about 4% of those diagnosed are younger than age 50.

“We are entering an epidemic of Parkinson’s disease, and we need to understand how to make our neurons more resilient,” said Freyberg. “VGLUT is a tantalizing new target that is key to not only understanding the fundamental biology at the core of dopamine neurons’ survival, but ultimately for developing new therapeutics.”

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