Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, usually appearing among adults over fifty years of age. It is associated with motor disturbances, and with progression, can often lead to deficits in cognitive function.
Some of the more well known individuals afflicted with this condition are Michael J. Fox, as well as Muhammad Ali.
The physiologic cause of Parkinsonism is decreasing production of dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter by the substantia nigra (a specific structure in the brain).
Majority of cases cannot be linked to any definite cause. However, there have been some studies that show that genetic and environmental influences can lead to development of this condition.
For example, research has shown that exposure to insecticides (e.g. organochlorines), pesticides (e.g. rotenone), and herbicides has been directly proportional to an increased risk of developing it.
Some experts have also concluded that this disease has a genetic component, since about fifteen percent of affected individuals indeed have a first degree relative with the same condition. In fact, they have isolated specific gene mutations that can cause Parkinson’s disease.
Majority of patients have been shown to manifest tremors of the extremities, especially when the limbs are resting. If they move their hands or feet, the tremors usually disappear. Furthermore, people with Parkinsonism often have slowness of movement, termed bradykinesia. Their limbs are usually very rigid, meaning that their movements are very stiff, and muscle tone is usually spastic.
Gait problems are also common among people with this disease. In fact, one of the hallmarks of Parkinsonism is shuffling. People with this disease walk with rapid, small shuffling steps. For this reason, they have problems with balance and are prone to frequent falls. With more advanced stages, this disease can have neuropsychiatric effects, leading to mental problems as well as deficits in behavior.
This disease can be diagnosed in a number of ways. First, the aforementioned signs and symptoms are very characteristic. Physicians have developed specific criteria for diagnosing Parkinson’s based on the patient’s history alone. Secondly, imaging studies of the brain can be used, though these can usually appear normal. If you take a brain sample and examine this under a microscope, you can see death of the brain cells.
There is no known cure for this condition, but several medications can be taken to improve its signs and symptoms. The main mechanism of action of these medications is to increase the production of dopamine by the nervous system, thereby reducing the occurrence of slow movement, tremors, rigidity, and mental deficits.
People with this illness tend to deteriorate over time, since the condition itself is non-reversible. With medications, one only can slow the progression of the signs and symptoms. Without medication, patients cannot be able to move independently within eight years, and are completely bedridden within ten years after being diagnosed.
There have been no proven measures to prevent its development, but research has shown that coffee intake, and surprisingly, smoking, can lead to a greater decrease in the risk of acquiring Parkinson’s disease.