In their search for a therapy that can stave off brain issues like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s, researchers have performed a staggering variety of tests, scans, examinations and experiments on brain tissue.

And they haven’t made much progress in figuring out functionally what happens in the body to cause these diseases.

Could it be these researchers keep coming up empty because they’ve been looking in the wrong place? Maybe it’s not all about the brain.

According to scientists at the Van Andel Research Institute in Michigan, an overlooked possibility for the origin of brain problems is the digestive tract. Of particular importance – the appendix.

And they’ve got the research results to back up their claim. . .

A study by these Michigan researchers shows that the appendix serves as a reservoir and storage unit for a complicated – and sometimes troublesome – protein called alpha-synuclein. When it functions correctly, this protein plays an important role in helping neurons pass on messages within the brain.1

But when it misbehaves, it can lead to memory loss, movement difficulties and the other awful symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. This disease affects about one person out of a hundred. It’s one of the scourges of old age.

“Our results point to the appendix as a site of origin for Parkinson’s and provide a path forward for devising new treatment strategies that leverage the gastrointestinal tract’s role in the development of the disease,” says researcher Viviane Labrie.

“Despite having a reputation as largely unnecessary,” she continues, “the appendix actually plays a major part in our immune systems, in regulating the makeup of our gut bacteria and now, as shown by our work, in Parkinson’s disease.”

What moved Dr. Labrie to look at the appendix? The fact that people who have had their appendix surgically removed early in life – and therefore have lost its function of collecting and storing alpha-synuclein – enjoy a significantly reduced risk of Parkinson’s.

But a quick note is an in order here: An appendectomy performed after Parkinson’s has already started has no protective effect against the disease.

For people who have had an early appendix removal, it appears to be a different story. According to Dr. Labrie, their risk of Parkinson’s disease goes down by about 19 percent. In rural areas, where the Parkinson’s risk generally runs higher as a result of increased exposure to pesticides, an appendectomy drops the risk by 25 percent.

In addition, though, Dr. Labrie and her fellow researchers admit they don’t yet understand why some people with alpha-synuclein in their appendixes get Parkinson’s and some don’t.

“We were surprised that pathogenic forms of alpha-synuclein were so pervasive in the appendixes of people both with and without Parkinson’s. It appears that these aggregates (collection of protein) – although toxic when in the brain – are quite normal when in the appendix. This clearly suggests their presence alone cannot be the cause of the disease.”

Their theory, not confirmed as yet, is that something has to happen in the body – probably in the digestive tract – that allows the appendix to influence the risk of Parkinson’s.

Steps to Lower Your Risk

Our understanding of how events in the appendix and the rest of the digestive tract are involved in Parkinson’s disease is still at an early stage. Still, research has found some things you can do to lower your risk.

Get more exercise: A review study in Asia that involved about 500,000 people shows that “vigorous physical activity” significantly shrinks your chances of Parkinson’s.2 And tests at the University of Colorado have demonstrated that an aerobic exercise like jogging can stop the accumulation of destructive alpha-synuclein in brain cells.3

Get more vitamin D: Although there hasn’t been definitive proof that getting more vitamin D can protect against Parkinson’s, many studies suggest there is a link.4 And research shows that being low in vitamin D is connected to digestive issues in people with Parkinson’s.5

Avoid pesticide exposure and never use pesticides in your house: Research shows that exposure to pesticides increases your risk for Parkinson’s. A lab study in Canada shows that pesticides can disrupt cellular functions that make neurons more vulnerable to Parkinson’s.6

Is an Appendectomy a Good Idea?

And I have one other bit of news I want to tell you about your appendix. Lately there’s a been a trend toward doctors treating appendicitis with antibiotics rather than appendectomy – the surgery that removes the organ. While I can’t give you a definitive answer on this, researchers generally seem to believe that it’s a better idea to cut out the inflamed appendix rather than try to control it with drugs.7

What would I do if I had to make the decision? I don’t know. I tend to think that appendicitis, like many other diseases, is mostly due to bad lifestyle choices – but by the time you’re headed to the ER with an appendix that’s ready to burst, it’s probably late to think about that. Peritonitis, the dreadful infection that results from a burst appendix, is so dangerous I’d probably want mine removed surgically.

And Stanford researcher Lindsay Sceats warns, “People treated with antibiotics alone have a higher chance of coming back (to the doctor) needing further treatment for appendicitis-related problems, such as abdominal abscesses. They also have a higher risk of having a reoccurrence.”

What about preventative appendectomy to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease? No one is suggesting that, and it’s not a good bet, in my opinion. A 19 to 25% reduction in a 1% chance of getting Parkinson’s doesn’t seem worth it. But if you’ve already had an appendectomy, made you’re reaping the benefit of this extra protection.