Parkinson's disease is the second most-prevalent neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer's disease, with approximately 2% of people age 65 or older affected. It is estimated that more than 1 million people in the United States have Parkinson's disease.

Clinically, Parkinson's disease is characterized by its predominant motor symptoms, which are the result of a profound deficiency of dopamine neurons in the basal ganglia with degeneration of the substantia nigra pars compacta. Tremor, slowness of movement, rigidity, postural instability and a good response to levodopa therapy are displayed; the disease is gradually progressive. In most cases, hallmark protein inclusions (Lewy bodies and Lewy neurites) are found within remaining neurons postmortem.

Parkinson's disease research at Mayo Clinic is an integrated, multidisciplinary research program that brings together neurologists, neuropsychologists, geneticists, neuropathologists and basic scientists in the study of the genetics and molecular biology of parkinsonism. Investigators draw upon the clinical strengths of the Mayo Clinic Division of Movement Disorders, and the epidemiologic and longitudinal studies of Parkinson's disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, and aging for the clinical material used in the research projects. This is coupled with a strong institutional commitment to Parkinson's disease research in the form of faculty research funds, an invited speaker seminar series, sponsorship of movement disorder fellowships, pilot research grants and generous support for faculty travel to promote intrainstitutional collaborations.

Major achievements of Parkinson's investigators Mayo include the discovery of the most common genetic cause of late-onset autosomal-dominant Parkinson's disease — leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2); identification of genetic variants in the alpha-synuclein gene (SNCA) that are risk factors for Parkinson's disease; evidence that incidental Lewy body disease is pre-clinical Parkinson's disease; validation of the neuropathologic criteria for dementia with Lewy bodies; and development of a novel synuclein construct (with leucine zipper tags) that permits rapid aggregation in vitro and in cell culture for potential drug screening.

By studying people who have Parkinson's disease and related disorders, the Mayo Parkinson's research group is gaining valuable insight into the etiology of these conditions.