Maria Grazia Spillantini is a molecular neurologist who was the first to identify the specific protein deposit found in Parkinson’s disease and some forms of dementia. Maria also uncovered gene mutations that cause an inherited form of dementia called frontotemporal dementia.
She showed that Lewy bodies — found inside nerve cells of the brains of people affected by Parkinson’s disease — were mainly formed of insoluble clumps of a common brain protein called alpha-synuclein. Such accumulations are the defining feature of several neurodegenerative diseases and forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, and cause the nerve cells to die. Following Maria’s work, these conditions are now often known as alpha-synucleinopathies.
Maria has also researched the microtubule protein, tau, and found that its accumulation can also contribute to degenerative and dementia-like diseases. Her current aim is to find treatments that take into account the mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s and similar diseases. She is a past winner of the Potamkin Prize of the American Academy of Neurology.