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Parkinson’s breakthrough could come from mind-controlling wasp venom

Getting stung by an emerald cockroach wasp isn’t a fun time, especially if you’re one of the cockroaches that the wasp is notorious for hunting. A single sting can stop a roach in its tracks, with subsequent stings turning the insect into a zombie that follows orders solely from the wasp. Now, its powerful venom is being studied for its mind-controlling properties with the hopes that unlocking its secrets could lead to new treatments for Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s is a particularly devastating disease due to its focus on the brain. Sufferers experience a number of symptoms including trembling and movement problems as the disease gradually kills off brain cells. However, because the disease is known to affect parts of the brain that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, researchers are hopeful that the wasp’s venom might hold a clue to treating it.

When a wasp has its prey in its zombified state it can actually control the movement of the insect by manipulating its antenna. It leads the roach into a burrow where it implants its eggs. The roach remains mind-locked just long enough for the eggs to catch and the baby wasps to feast on it. The scientists noted that when no eggs were implanted, the roach snaps out of its zombified state in roughly a week, appearing perfectly healthy in its recovery.

This is of particular interest to scientists because it’s thought that the wasp’s venom may also be toying with dopamine production and absorption. If they can determine how the wasp venom affects the brains of the roaches, it could reveal a way to reverse the process, and that would be groundbreaking news for Parkinson’s research. Scientists studying the venom of the wasps were able to determine that an entirely new type of compound was present. The new compound, a type of peptide, is believed to be part of the wasps’s “mind control” trick. The research was published in the American Chemical Society.

Now the truly difficult works begins. Going forward, the researchers must work to determine exactly how the venom does its deed and, if it passes the test, how to utilize the chemicals in a way that would benefit Parkinson’s sufferers.