In the early 1980s research on the neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s disease, took a massive shift due to an incredibly strange and tragic turn of events. Let’s start at the beginning. It’s 1982 and several hospitals in the california bay area recieve patients with a curious condition. 7 younger adults were all admitted to different emergency departments with the same issue: a severe and rapid onset of a disease that mimicked late-stage Parkinson’s disease. When news spread between hospitals, there was a large effort to understand what commonality between these patients had led to this irreversible tragedy. It was not until the media and police got involved that doctors finally got their answer (Langston, 2017).
While none of these patients knew each other personally, all 7 patients shared 1 thing in common. They had all recently used a new synthetic version of heroin (Langston, 2017). After significant chemical analysis, scientists found that the synthetic heroin contained the chemical, 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine, also known as MPTP. This toxic chemical leads to the destruction of the dopamine producing neurons in the substantia nigra of the brain, mirroring traditional Parkinson’s disease (you can read more about Parkinson’s (Sian et al., 2011).
So what does this mean for research? Before the discovery of MPTP, researcher’s did not have animal models that could be used to study Parkinson’s disease. All of our data came from humans. After the discovery that MPTP could induce a condition very similar to Parkinson’s, researchers shifted their work toward studying Parkinson’s disease and potential treatments in animal models, such as mice and monkeys (Nonnekes, 2018). Today, these models have led to a deeper understanding of the neurological mechanisms that underlie Parkinson’s disease as well as the development of new treatments to provide relief for suffering patients (Goetz, 2011)!