May 9, 2019| 3:39pm
The true purpose of the seemingly inert human appendix continues to elude modern medicine, buta new study suggeststhat those who have the organ removed due to appendicitis are at three times greater risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
Appendicitis is defined as inflammation or rupturing of the appendix, a small organ located at the base of the large intestine. Each year around 300,000 Americans have their appendix removed, usually for this reason.
Meanwhile, Parkinson’s disease, a debilitating neurological condition originating in the mid-brain, strikes some 200,000 per year in the US, including high-profile patients such as Michael J Fox, whohas campaigned for a curefor with the Michael J Fox Foundation since the year 2000. Notable Parkinson’s sufferer Robin Williamstook his life in 2014,leaving many to speculate whether he sought to avoid a life with the devastating disease.
Using data from over 62 million patients in the US, scientists at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center found 488,190 of them had had their appendices removed. Of those, 4,470 were eventually diagnosed with Parkinson’s — about one percent of the appendectomy group.
Researchers wonder if this discovery will shed light on the origins of Parkinson’s and the link between the brain and the gut, and believe that a particular protein, alpha synuclein, may play a role in the relationship between the appendix and Parkinson’s.
“Recent research into the cause of Parkinson’s has centered around alpha synuclein, a protein found in the gastrointestinal tract early in the onset of Parkinson’s,” says Dr. Mohammed Sheriff. “This is why scientists around the world have been looking into the gastrointestinal tract, including the appendix, for evidence about the development of Parkinson’s.”
Clusters of alpha synuclein, called Lewy bodies, are known to collect in the brains and guts of Parkinson’s patients. Believing Lewy bodies begin in the gut, researchers hope they might uncover a way to stop the clumps from traveling up to the brain via the vagus nerve.
These studies have led many experts to believe that the appendix, long thought a superfluous vestige organ, may actually play a role in fighting infection after all.
“This research shows a clear relationship between the appendix, or appendix removal, and Parkinson’s disease, but it is only an association,” says Dr. Sheriff. “Additional research is needed to confirm this connection and to better understand the mechanisms involved.”