The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, July 4, 2014

More About Lewy Bodies

By now, most of us know that Lewy bodies cause Lewy body dementia (LBD). They also cause Parkinson’s disease (PD) and REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD). All of these are “Lewy body disorders.” Which one a person has depends on where the Lewy bodies are in the brain. Lewy bodies migrate and so a person may start out with RBD, then develop PD and go on to get LBD eventually. Of course, a person can also start out with LBD and never have many movement issues. See the 3/28/14 blog for more about these specific disorders. This blog is about Lewy bodies themselves and how they come about. (Special thanks to the gentleman in an Everett WA support group who asked questions about alpha synuclein and its normal function in the body. It sent us searching and this is the result of that search.)

What are Lewy bodies? They are clusters of proteins called alpha synuclein that have become damaged. Usually, when a protein is damaged, it is just sluffed off without a problem. But in this case, they become toxic. These toxic clusters look like microscopic round “bodies.” The more Lewy bodies a person has, the more symptoms they are likely to have and the more severe the symptoms will be.

What is alpha synuclein and what is its function? This protein is abundant in the brain. It is found in the tips of neurons, where it facilitates in the release of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and acetylcholine.

What are the functions of dopamine and acetylcholine? Dopamine in the mid-brain helps to control fine movement and acetylcholine in the outer part of the brain helps to control cognitive skills such as thinking and planning.

What happens when alpha synuclein becomes damaged? The release of neurotransmitters is impeded. Depending on the neurotransmitter involved, movement or cognitive abilities or both can be affected. In addition, the neurons weaken and eventually die, which further limits the brain’s reserves of these neurotransmitters.

What causes alpha synuclein to become damaged and turn into Lewy bodies? No one knows for sure. However, experts believe that it is a combination of genetics and environmental toxins. For instance, farmers, who have been exposed to insecticides and other dangerous chemicals, are at a higher than normal risk of Lewy body disorders.

How can you identify Lewy bodies? Until recently, the only totally accurate way was via autopsy. That’s why we recommend brain donations. (See the 4/14/14 blog.) Other methods are becoming possible, but they are still too expensive for the average person and even then, are not available except in teaching or research facilities. However, Lewy –savvy neurologists can use some basic cognitive and hand-eye coordination tests along with a medical history of symptoms to identify Lewy body disorders accurately more than 90% of the time, when compared later with autopsies.

What can a person do to keep the Lewy bodies from spreading? You can’t—but you CAN slow them down a lot by living a healthy, positive, low-stress lifestyle and avoiding Lewy-dangerous drugs. See Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson’s and Other Lewy Body Disorders, available on for more about slowing down these progressive disorders and improving one’s quality of life.

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