You probably havn't heard of farnesol. But you've probably smelled or tasted it, because it's a compound found in essential oils and is used in candles and incense, perfumes, air fresheners, soaps, and food flavors.
Farnesol also has many medicinal uses and thanks to a new discovery by scientists at Johns Hopkins University, we now know that farnesol may have the potential to prevent or treat Parkinson's disease.
Farnesol is derived from many plants such as lemon grass, thyme, rose, balsam, and musk.
It can also be found in berries, peaches, and tomatoes, so we probably all consume some in our diets although the amounts involved have never been measured.
Chemists have also created synthetic farnesol for use in commerce.
Farnesol’s fragrance has many applications, but its importance lies in its medical uses to treat allergic asthma, skin rashes, diabetes, atherosclerosis, obesity, and high blood fats.
What is really exciting though is that research has recently been published that shows farnesol can also deactivate a rogue protein that promotes Parkinson's disease.
Too Much PARIS (not France) is a Bad Thing
A hallmark of Parkinson’s is the loss of neurons in the substantia nigra, a major dopamine-producing area of the brain.
These brain cells are crucial to motor control and their degeneration leads to the classic symptoms of the disease - tremors, rigidity, and slowness of movement.
In 2011, researchers discovered a key protein called PARIS whose over-expression puts the brakes on the production of a protective protein called PGC-1alpha. This leads to the selective loss of dopamine neurons.
For their study, the Johns Hopkins team screened a large library of drugs to find the ones that could inhibit PARIS. Synthetic farnesol was one that stood out.
Protective Protein Restored
The researchers began with mice genetically engineered to mimic Parkinson's symptoms. They fed these mice either their regular diet or one supplemented with farnesol.
After seven days they also injected the mice with alpha-synuclein, a protein that destroys dopamine neurons.
Finally, all of the mice went through a strength and coordination test to detect whether symptoms of Parkinson's had worsened. The scientists found that the farnesol-supplemented mice performed twice as well as the controls.
In addition, examination of brain tissue showed these mice also had double the number of healthy dopamine neurons and 55 percent more PGC-1alpha compared to controls.
In chemical analysis, the researchers found that farnesol binds to PARIS. This changes its shape leaving it unable to interfere with the production of PGC-1alpha.
Neurology professor Ted Dawson, leader of the 35-member research team, explained, saying, "Our experiments showed that farnesol both significantly prevented the loss of dopamine neurons and reversed behavioral deficits in mice, indicating its promise as a potential drug treatment to prevent Parkinson’s disease."
Following further research, Prof. Dawson is hopeful that farnesol will help create treatments that can prevent and even reverse brain damage caused by Parkinson’s disease.