Healthy Living

The History of Parkinson's Disease

The History of Parkinson's Disease

The understanding of Parkinson’s disease has evolved over the years. Techniques and methods used for treatment have greatly improved over time. Parkinson’s disease is far from a new illness. In fact, this disease, and its various treatment methods, go back thousands of years.

The possible symptoms and treatments for this disease were a topic of discussion in Ayurveda, which is an ancient medical practice that has been around since 5000 B.C. Details regarding Parkinson’s disease were also mentioned in Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, which was the first Chinese medical text. This text is almost more than 2500 years old. Today, there is still much research being conducted on potential treatments for Parkinson’s disease; however, far more study is required before a cure can be found.

Parkinson’s Ancient History

The ancient civilization of India practiced Ayurveda, which is their medieval doctrine. Ayurveda was claimed to be a divine relation of the ancient Indian creator of the universe known as Lord Brahma. This medieval doctrine describes Parkinson’s disease symptoms, which were referred to as Kampavata, as far back as 5000 B.C. To treat these symptoms, they began using a tropical legume known as Mucuna Pruriens. This legume is said to be a natural source of L-dopa. Mucuna Pruriens are considered to be one of the oldest known treatment methods for Parkinson’s disease and are still being used today. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, which is often called Su Wen, is one of the oldest existing medical texts in China. This text was written in 500 B.C. and was said to be composed of two texts, each consisting of 81 chapters or treaties. These texts are presented in the format of questions and answers between Huang Di and his ministers. The first text, titled Suwen, is called Plain Questions and covers the theoretical aspects or foundations of Chinese medicine along with the method of diagnosis and treatment. Descriptions of Parkinson’s disease can be found within this text.

The old and new testaments of the bible are also said to reference the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The possible references of Parkinsonism can be found in the depiction of old age given in the old testament (Ecclesiastes 12:3) “When the guardians of the house tremble and the strong men are bent.” There are also similar descriptions present in the new testament (Luke 13:11) “There was a woman who for eighteen years had been crippled by a spirit. Bent and completely incapable of standing erect.”

In the sixteenth century, an Italian artist, scientist, and engineer by the name of Leonardo Da Vinci studied anatomy, medicine, and physiology. Da Vinci maintained a secret notebook in which he wrote and sketched his observations and ideas. It has been said that Leonardo had seen people whose symptoms closely resembled tremors, which is one of the key symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. In one of the sections of his notebook, Da Vinci wrote “you will see…..those who…..move their trembling parts, such as their hands or heads without the permission from the soul; (the) soul with all of its force also cannot stop or prevent these parts from trembling.”

There have also been references or examples of Parkinson’s disease symptoms in the plays of renowned English playwright William Shakespeare. References to shaking palsy can be seen in the second part of the writer’s historical play Henry VI. During an exchange between Say and Dick, Say is said to explain to Dick that it has been shaking palsy, rather than fear, that was causing him to shake. Dick then asks Say “Why dost though quiver, man?” on which Say responds “The palsy, and not fear, provokes me”. One of the oldest known names for Parkinson’s disease is shaking palsy.  

The History of Parkinson's Disease

  • 175 AD: A Greek physician named Claudius Galenus recorded different types of tremors present in certain body parts. These tremors were attributed as shaking palsy.
  • 1817: Parkinson’s disease was formally identified or recognized in a classic paper published by James Parkinson. The paper was titled “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy.” Through this publication, Parkinson’s disease was given medical recognition. James Parkinson (1755-1824) was a physician from London who began to observe what is now known as the classic symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. These symptoms were observed in three patients and three people whom he had seen on the streets of the city. The published essay is known to contain clear descriptions on some of the main symptoms of the disease such as tremors, rigidity, and instability in posture. James mentions in the essay that the development of this disease was due to a problem in the brain’s medulla region.
  • 1872: French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot was the first to use the term “Parkinson’s disease” and classified it as rigid or akinetic.
  • Early 1900s: Brain surgeries being performed as an attempt to stop the tremors being experienced by patients. However, doctors were forced to abandon this surgical method since the process of performing multiple surgeries on patients led to partial paralysis.
  • 1910: The Dopa decarboxylase enzyme was discovered, showing that levodopa can be broken down to dopamine through the actions of the enzyme.
  • 1925: A French physician named Edouard Brissaud proposed that the possible cause of Parkinson’s disease could be damage sustained by the substantia nigra, which is the part of the brain that plays an important role in controlling the body’s movements.
  • 1940s-1950s: Neurosurgeons began performing surgeries again on the Bansal ganglia of the brain. This surgery resulted in improvement of the symptoms caused by Parkinson’s disease. However, the performance of this surgery was highly risky. While some of the procedures were successful, others resulted in death. At least ten percent of patients died during the operation.
  • 1950s: The use of synthetic drugs became the main treatment method for Parkinson’s disease. Due to their side effects and limited efficacy, the treatments that had been derived from plants were almost completely replaced by synthetic drugs. Some of the main types of drugs that were used were anticholinergics. This was because of their ability to reduce the contraction of muscles.
  • 1957: The National Parkinson Foundation (NPF) and the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF) were established. The goal of these foundations was to bring about change in the lives of those suffering from the disease.
  • 1961: Levodopa is administered, by way of injection, to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
  • 1967: Hoehn and Yahr introduced the five stages of Parkinson’s disease. These stages were used by clinicians to describe the disease progression and motor symptoms.
  • 1984: The world slowly started becoming more aware of Parkinson’s disease. The disease especially came to light upon the announcement that boxing legend Muhammed Ali had been living with Parkinson’s disease for almost 32 years. This eventually led to the establishment of the Muhammed Ali Parkinson Center.
  • Early 1990s: The Center of Excellence network is formed. It brings together the world’s top Parkinson’s centers. Presently the network includes 42 facilities that provide expert care to 105,000 patients with Parkinson’s disease.
  • 1997: The Federal Food and Drug Administration approved the use of deep brain stimulation surgery as a treatment for the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
  • 2004: Researchers discovered a gene named LRRK2. This gene was identified as one of the most common genetic causes of the disease.
  • 2009: The Parkinson’s outcomes project was launched. It now has the world’s largest clinical study. There are more than 9000 participants enrolled in the project.
  • 2016: The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF) and The National Parkinson Foundation (NPF) merged to form the Parkinson’s Foundation. Today, this foundation has identified around ten million people worldwide who are living with this disease. The main mission of this foundation is to invest in promising research that could bring an end to Parkinson’s disease altogether.