The classic view portrays Parkinson disease (PD) as a motor disorder resulting from loss of substantia nigra pars compacta dopaminergic neurons. Multiple studies, however, describe prodromal, non-motor dysfunctions that affect the quality of life of patients who subsequently develop PD. These prodromal dysfunctions comprise a wide array of gastrointestinal motility disorders including dysphagia, delayed gastric emptying and chronic constipation. The histological hallmark of PD — misfolded α-synuclein aggregates that form Lewy bodies and neurites — is detected in the enteric nervous system prior to clinical diagnosis, suggesting that the gastrointestinal tract and its neural (vagal) connection to the central nervous system could have a major role in disease aetiology. This Review provides novel insights on the pathogenesis of PD, including gut-to-brain trafficking of α-synuclein as well as the newly discovered nigro–vagal pathway, and highlights how vagal connections from the gut could be the conduit by which ingested environmental pathogens enter the central nervous system and ultimately induce, or accelerate, PD progression. The pathogenic potential of various environmental neurotoxicants and the suitability and translational potential of experimental animal models of PD will be highlighted and appraised. Finally, the clinical manifestations of gastrointestinal involvement in PD and medications will be discussed briefly.
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