BACKGROUND: Parkinson's disease (PD) affects an estimated 7 to 10 million people worldwide, and only symptomatic treatments are presently available to relieve the consequences of brain dopaminergic neurons loss. Neuronal degeneration in PD is the consequence of neuroinflammation in turn influenced by peripheral adaptive immunity, with CD4+ T lymphocytes playing a key role. CD4+ T cells may however acquire proinflammatory phenotypes, such as T helper (Th) 1 and Th17, as well as anti-inflammatory phenotypes, such as Th2 and the T regulatory (Treg) one, and to what extent the different CD4+ T cell subsets are imbalanced and their functions dysregulated in PD remains largely an unresolved issue.
METHODS: We performed two cross-sectional studies in antiparkinson drug-treated and drug-naïve PD patients, and in age- and sex-matched healthy subjects. In the first one, we examined circulating Th1, Th2, Th17, and in the second one circulating Treg. Number and frequency of CD4+ T cell subsets in peripheral blood were assessed by flow cytometry and their functions were studied in ex vivo assays. In both studies, complete clinical assessment, blood count and lineage-specific transcription factors mRNA levels in CD4+ T cells were independently assessed and thereafter compared for their consistency.
RESULTS: PD patients have reduced circulating CD4+ T lymphocytes, due to reduced Th2, Th17, and Treg. Naïve CD4+ T cells from peripheral blood of PD patients preferentially differentiate towards the Th1 lineage. Production of interferon-γ and tumor necrosis factor-α by CD4+ T cells from PD patients is increased and maintained in the presence of homologous Treg. This Th1-biased immune signature occurs in both drug-naïve patients and in patients on dopaminergic drugs, suggesting that current antiparkinson drugs do not affect peripheral adaptive immunity.
CONCLUSIONS: The complex phenotypic and functional profile of CD4+ T cell subsets in PD patients strengthen the evidence that peripheral adaptive immunity is involved in PD, and represents a target for the preclinical and clinical assessment of novel immunomodulating therapeutics.