Alan Alda, Michael J. Fox, Don Horton, Linda Ronstadt, Charles M. Schulz, and Robin Williams all share something: each one developed the mysterious and deadly Parkinson’s Disease.
Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain responsible for body movement. The disease can also interfere with speech. In its advanced stages, PD can severely impair the activities of daily living (ADLs). Simple tasks such as tying shoelaces become difficult to impossible.
High-risk candidates for PD include men and people over 50 years old. PD occurs randomly and does not seem to run in families.
In other words, no medical expert knows what causes PD.
Age, genetic make-up, gender, and environmental factors are being tested to try to find the source of the disease. It is thought that long-term exposure to toxins such as herbicides and pesticides may increase the risk of getting PD.
PD causes the brain’s chemistry and neural functioning to change. Cells that produce a chemical called dopamine die off. Low dopamine levels in the brain – when 80 percent of dopamine is lost – produce symptoms such as tremor, slowness, stiffness, and balance problems.
Here’s how it works: nerve cells (neurons) send and receive bio-electrical nerve impulses (signals) between the body and the brain. One excited neuron passes its energy to nearby neurons.
The cell body of a neuron has arms (dendrites) that branch. Dendrites function as tiny antennae and detect messages. Axons (nerve fibers) transport messages away from the cell body.
Impulses that pass from one neuron to another, from the axon of one cell to the dendrites of a neighbor, must cross over a tiny gap between the two nerve cells called a synapse. Chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) allow the electrical impulse to cross the gap.
PD damages the basal ganglia and the substantia nigra which are located deep within the brain. The neurotransmitter dopamine is manufactured in the nerve cells located in the substantia nigra. Dopamine is directly responsible for relaying messages that plan and control body movement.
Consequently, although symptoms of PD vary from person to person, along with the rate of neuro-physical deterioration, they are all rooted in physical movement:
Tremor at rest is the hallmark, involuntary bodily shaking that decreases with intention and purposeful movement. Nervous tremors usually start on one side of the body in the hand.
Postural instability or a sense of imbalance is another key sign of PD. My father (who died 12 years after his diagnosis) said it felt like he was going to fall down a flight of stairs with every step he took. He asked me if I could imagine what that felt like: unsettling to terrifying. Patients often compensate by stooping over which lowers their center of gravity.
Bradykinesia presents as slowed movements, impaired dexterity, decreased eye blinking, uncontrollable drooling, and an expressionless face.
Rigidity or stiffness in the body is caused by an involuntary increase in muscle tone.
There are many symptoms of PD which are also associated with different medical conditions. Some are more common than others:
- Trouble thinking (cognitive impairment)
- Freezing or being stuck in place
- Shuffling gait or dragging of one foot
- Small, cramped handwriting
- Sleep problems, insomnia
- Apathy, depression, emotional changes
- Lowered voice volume or tremor when speaking
- Difficulty swallowing, choking, chewing and eating problems
- Constipation (inability to pass and eliminate bile)
- Incontinence (involuntary urination)
- Dizziness from standing suddenly
- Sense of smell disorders or problems
- Fatigue, especially later in the day
- Pain (all-body or specific to a part or area)
- Sexual indifference or reduced performance
Always seek professional help if you suspect you or someone you know has medical issues.
Since there is no cure for PD, treatment is the only option. But there is no standard treatment for PD. Therapy is tailored to each patient’s situation and needs.
It’s hard to believe in this day and age, but the National Institute on Aging says “there are currently no blood or laboratory tests to diagnose nongenetic cases of Parkinson’s disease. Diagnosis is based on a person’s medical history and a neurological examination. Improvement after initiating medication is another important hallmark of Parkinson’s disease.”
Medication, surgery, getting more rest and more exercise, reducing exposure to toxins, and purging those you already ingested are all possible methods to alleviate the difficulties associated with PD.
Healthcare providers can only reduce symptoms to make possible a more active and satisfying lifestyle. Medication, diet, exercise, and deep brain stimulation surgery are all available treatments.
There have been some encouraging results from brain implant surgeries that overcome the body’s low dopamine levels.
In May 2016, the NeuroMedical Center released a startling video of their revolutionary Medtronic Deep Brain Simulator which demonstrated remarkable and instantaneous relief from debilitating PD tremors and loss of speech.
Medtronic is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota while the NeuroMedical Center is based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Hats off to this American ingenuity and engineering!
In mere seconds and with only the push of a button, a man called Mr. Richaredson, obviously suffering from advanced PD, with only a pad draped over one shoulder hooked up to a single wire, stops shaking completely and speaks normally.
A combination of medicine and an electronic stimulator comprise the novel system.
The surgically-implanted device is much like a cardiac pacemaker. It was designed to stimulate certain areas of the brain – not to produce more dopamine but to neutralize physical motor symptoms such as muscle tremors.
It has been reported that using the Deep Brain Simulator has allowed Mr. Richardson to stop taking his daily medication.