By Lisa Marinelli Smith
Parkinson’s disease is a condition that begins when brain cells controlling movement start to die, leading to tremors and other neurological symptoms.
The condition is linked to a lack of dopamine, a brain chemical that serves many purposes, including producing smooth, purposeful movement. When someone has Parkinson’s, brain cells that make dopamine begin to die. Without the right amount of dopamine, neurons can’t transmit the right cues to control movement throughout the body.
Most people with Parkinson’s begin to develop the disease around age 60, according to the National Institute on Aging. However, about 5 to 10 percent develop “early-onset” Parkinson’s beginning before the age of 50.
According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, about 1 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease.
Researchers and doctors don’t understand all the causes of Parkinson’s. They are always working to create more effective treatments, but here are some basic facts about Parkinson’s disease.
4 symptoms are most common among those who have Parkinson’s
Parkinson’s disease is a chronic and progressive condition in which symptoms grow worse over time. No single test or imaging scan leads to a diagnosis. Instead, neurologists evaluate patients’ symptoms and ask them to complete neurological tasks.
Over the course of the disease, the severity of symptoms can range from minor motion disturbances to severe disability.
Parkinson’s disease has four primary symptoms:
As the disease progresses, people may also experience:
Doctors don’t know what causes Parkinson’s
Researchers don’t know what precisely causes Parkinson’s disease. They have uncovered a genetic component, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all Parkinson’s cases, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.
Environmental factors also play a role. These include:
Often, an environmental exposure happens years before a Parkinson’s diagnosis, so it can be hard to trace the condition back to that. However, environmental factors would likely impact someone who is already genetically predisposed to Parkinson’s.
Scientists are also investigating biological factors, such as inflammation and stress within the cells, to see if they play a role in the disease. As researchers understand more about the causes of Parkinson’s, they can develop more effective treatments.
Medications and other treatments can improve Parkinson’s disease
While there’s no cure for Parkinson’s, medications and other treatments can improve patients’ quality of life.
According to the National Institute on Aging, neurologists prescribe medications that:
If medication doesn’t provide relief, neurologists may suggest surgery to implant electrodes for deep brain stimulation (DBS). The electrodes connect to a small device called a pulse generator that painlessly stimulates the brain to block signals that cause many of the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
EEGs may give helpful information about the brain function of Parkison’s patients
EEGs, short for electroencephalograms, are noninvasive tests that track electrical activity in the brain through electrodes placed on the scalp. The brain wave activity gives neurologists information about how your brain functions.
A widely reported 2019 University of Oregon and University of California-San Diego study analyzed brain waves of a small sample of Parkinson’s patients and a healthy control group. They found that the Parkinson’s group all had similar brain wave patterns based on the waves’ angles and sharpness.
Researchers hope they can use EEGs to track changes in the brains of Parkinson’s patients to improve future treatments and the diagnosis of the disease. Clinical trials are also underway throughout the U.S. to improve treatments and outcomes.
Around ten years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledged the unmet need — and urgency — of including patient perspective in drug and device development in a systematic way.