Henderson Laboratory

Protein pathologies and genetic risk in neurodegeneration

Parkinson’s disease (PD) and dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) are progressive neurodegenerative diseases affecting movement and cognitive function in patients. These two diseases share a common pathology — aggregates bearing misfolded forms of the normally synaptic protein α-synuclein. While these diseases begin gradually, they progress relentlessly, and this progression of symptoms is associated with the accumulation of misfolded α-synuclein in more and more regions of the brain and the misfolding of additional proteins, including tau.

PD and DLB bear an additional commonality — the lack of disease-modifying treatments. Substantial evidence suggests that either disrupting the formation of protein pathologies or the transmission of pathology through the brain will result in stabilization, and perhaps improvement, of symptoms. Susceptibility to these diseases depends on several factors, including genetic background. Mutations in proteins like leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) and glucocerebrosidase can predispose individuals to developing PD or DLB and targeting these proteins may provide therapeutic benefit for patients as well.

The Henderson Laboratory takes a two-pronged approach to addressing neurodegenerative disease. One approach is to understand what goes wrong in neurons and the brain to lead to neurodegeneration by probing disrupted cellular pathways, mapping how pathology spreads through the brain and investigating the impact of genetic risk factors on disease progression. The second approach is to use what we learn about these diseases to develop and evaluate potential therapeutic treatments. The laboratory utilizes primary neuron cultures to investigate cellular pathways disrupted in disease and screen therapeutic molecules. We also use animal models of disease to understand how pathological proteins spread through the brain and to evaluate the likely efficacy of top therapeutic candidates. It is the mission of the Henderson Laboratory to use rigorous scientific methods to understand neurodegenerative diseases and to leverage that knowledge to develop and evaluate treatments for these devastating diseases.