A major challenge in biomedical research is to understand brain function and how it is affected in brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. The basic functional unit in the brain is the nerve cell and understanding communication between nerve cells at a fundamental level – and how these connections are damaged – will help us to understand how the brain works, and what goes wrong in disease.
Dr Jones’s research focuses on the properties of dopamine-releasing nerve cells in the brain. These cells are involved in movement control and show the most obvious pathology in Parkinson's disease. Her team investigates how protein molecules expressed at the cell surface are regulated from inside and outside the nerve cell, and the role of these protein molecules in the survival and death of dopamine-releasing nerve cells. These questions can only be addressed through the use of living, functioning mammalian brain cells and so their experiments are carried out on brain tissue extracted from rats and mice after they have been deeply anaesthetized. Rats and mice are the lowest mammalian species suitable for our studies. Some of the experiments use brain tissue from mice with a genetic modification in a particular protein. These mice have no obvious changes in health and wellbeing compared to mice without genetic modifications.
The findings from these studies should provide new information on the role of specific protein molecules in dopamine nerve cell function and mechanisms of cell survival and death in the mammalian brain. Potentially, they may identify mechanisms of regulation and modulation that could be exploited therapeutically in neurological disorders, notably in Parkinson's disease.