Is there a testosterone link to Parkinson’s?

Member of the Cunningham Lab
Members of the Cunningham Lab: Brina Snyder, Jo Contreras, Rebecca Cunningham, Rizwan Nazarali, Shaletha Holmes. Missing from the photo is Phong Duong.

Parkinson’s disease affects more men than women, but no one knows why.

Understanding what puts men at a two- to-three times greater risk of this progressive neurological disorder, best known for causing tremors, could shed light on this condition and one day lead to medications to treat it, said Rebecca Cunningham, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Neuroscience.

With the help of a $1.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Cunningham hopes to unravel the role that testosterone plays in the disease’s progression.

“Testosterone alone does not cause Parkinson’s disease,” she said. “But it may increase the severity of Parkinson’s.”

Testosterone is fine by itself, but it can increase oxidative stress, a by-product of oxygen consumption in cells caused by the process of breathing. When oxidative stress is increased, it speeds up the damage to cells in the brain, Dr. Cunningham said.

Oxidative stress occurs when there are more free radicals produced in the body than antioxidants, which can lead to cell damage. Oxidative stress is a key component of many brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, she said.

Understanding how testosterone increases oxidative stress is important for several reasons. In the past decade, testosterone therapy use has increased three-fold among aging men. It is not yet known how such therapy impacts the brain’s vulnerability to age-related disorders.

Knowing more about testosterone’s role also could lead to targeted therapies and ultimately help men who already have Parkinson’s. About 1 million people in the United States have the nervous system disorder.

“Right now we can’t cure it,” Dr. Cunningham said. “But we may one day be able to slow down Parkinson’s disease and make a more normal life possible.”

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