Parkinson’s disease is a slowly progressing brain disorder that affects motor skills, causing tremors, rigidity and slowness of movement. There is no cure for Parkinson’s, which affects an estimated 7 million to 10 million people worldwide. More than 200 new therapies are being studied in clinical trials, and advances in genetics and stem cell therapy offer hope to improve treatment and quality of life for people suffering from this debilitating disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative brain disorder that affects movement. In Parkinson’s, cells in a certain part of the midbrain (the substantia nigra) begin to die. These cells produce dopamine, a chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) that helps to control body movement. As more dopamine-producing cells are damaged, symptoms begin to appear.
Early symptoms include uncontrollable tremors, rigidity, difficulty walking, loss of smell and trouble sleeping. In more advanced stages, Parkinson’s may affect behavior and thought processes including attention, reasoning and memory. Parkinson’s itself is not fatal, but complications from the disease make it the 14th leading cause of death in the United States. It is the second most common degenerative brain disorder after Alzheimer’s.
The cause of Parkinson’s is unknown, but researchers have found that a protein called alpha-synuclein accumulates in structures called Lewy bodies inside the brain cells (neurons) of Parkinson’s sufferers. Lewy bodies are found in different parts of the brain and are linked to the type and severity of symptoms an individual patient experiences.
Most people are diagnosed after the age of 50 and live with symptoms for 20 years or more. Medicines such as levodopa and dopamine agonists control symptoms in early and moderate disease stages. Diet, rehabilitation, and treatment for symptoms like sleep disturbance also can be helpful. Organizations including the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation and the National Parkinson’s Foundation offer patient information and support.