Despite tremendous growth in recent years in our knowledge of the molecular basis of Parkinson disease (PD) and the molecular pathways of cell injury and death, we remain without therapies that forestall disease progression. Although there are many possible explanations for this lack of success, one is that experimental therapeutics to date have not adequately focused on an important component of the disease process, that of axon degeneration. It remains unknown what neuronal compartment, either the soma or the axon, is involved at disease onset, although some have proposed that it is the axons and their terminals that take the initial brunt of injury. Nevertheless, this concept has not been formally incorporated into many of the current theories of disease pathogenesis, and it has not achieved a wide consensus. More importantly, in view of growing evidence that the molecular mechanisms of axon degeneration are separate and distinct from the canonical pathways of programmed cell death that mediate soma destruction, the possibility of early involvement of axons in PD has not been adequately emphasized as a rationale to explore the neurobiology of axons for novel therapeutic targets. We propose that ongoing degeneration of axons, not cell bodies, is the primary determinant of clinically apparent progression of disease, and that future experimental therapeutics intended to forestall disease progression will benefit from a new focus on the distinct mechanisms of axon degeneration.
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