Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Cross-section of the human brain showing the substantia nigra, the region affected by Parkinson's disease.A progressive neurological disorder, Parkinson’s disease (or PD) usually develops in the latter years of life, and worsens over time. The disorder develops when a gradual degeneration of nerve cells (neurons) occurs in the mid-brain which are responsible for controlling body movements.

Dopamine is a substance which aids smooth and coordinated muscle movements of the body, and is produced in the ‘substantia nigra’ portion of the brain. When dopamine levels reduce, the cells of this portion of the brain begin to degenerate or ‘die’, and problems with movement begin to occur. A person is effectively unable to control movement normally as a result of the malfunction.

As a result, the first signs are usually physical – a stiffness in one limb, feelings of weakness in the body, and a fine trembling of one hand. New sensation changes may be barely noticeable at first, and are often easy to dismiss, but gradually worsen and become more apparent.

Muscles become stiffer, balance and coordination begins to deteriorate and a person’s movements slow down. A person may also begin to show little or no facial expression, appear unable to swing their arms while they walk, and speech may begin to slur a little or become soft. Gradual physical deterioration leads to other cognitive problems as well as mental or emotional troubles such as depression.

Typically diagnosed in a person’s latter years, between the ages of 50 and 65, Parkinson’s affects more men than women. The condition is chronic and as yet, is not curable. To date, medications have provided the best source of medical intervention, treating symptoms of the disorder. Surgery is another treatment option, whereby specific regions of the brain can be regulated as a means to help alleviate symptoms. Surgery can provide some improvement, but cannot completely rectify a person’s condition.

The degree of impairment in a person diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease varies. Many are able to adequately manage symptoms with medication and live relatively productive lives. Others experience degeneration that leaves them disabled at a quicker pace.

Did you know? Conditions showing similar symptoms and progressive patterns have been written about as far back as 5 000 BC. Ancient Indian civilisations called the disorder ‘Kampavata’ which they documented treating with seeds containing therapeutic levels of what is now known as ‘levodopa’ (an amino acid used in medication to treat Parkinson’s Disease). In 1817, a British physician, James Parkinson, described the disorder as ‘shaking palsy’, later the condition was named after him, becoming known as ‘Parkinson’s Disease’.

What is early-onset Parkinson’s disease?

As a disorder, Parkinson’s disease is more commonly diagnosed among seniors (adult-onset Parkinson’s Disease), but can occur in younger generations too. Symptoms and stages of the condition are more or less the same, no matter at what age a diagnosis is made.

Early-onset Parkinson’s disease typically occurs between the ages of 21 and 40. It can also happen that individuals who are younger than 21 develop the condition. This is known as juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease.

Research into Parkinson’s disease is ongoing, but has yet to determine a direct causal link, no matter the age at which the condition is diagnosed. Research is extensively looking at genetic and environmental factors (chemical toxins such as fungicides, herbicides and insecticides), and a combination of these. Many experts agree that these areas of focus do play a role in the development of the condition due to the nature of similarities found in large population notes and studies.

Research has noted that 65% of individuals diagnosed with juvenile-onset Parkinson’s disease appear to have a stronger genetic mutation link. Genes appear to play less of a role when diagnosed as early-onset Parkinson’s disease (around 32%).

NEXT What has research for Parkinson's been able to determine?

Other Articles of Interest