Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, progressive movement disorder that affects the nervous system. It is characterized by gradual death and breakdown of nerve cells in the brain resulting in the decreased production of a chemical messenger called dopamine. Reduced dopamine levels cause abnormal brain activity, which leads to signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease namely tremors, slowed movement, muscle rigidity, and impaired balance. To date, no medically definitive trigger has been pinpointed to cause Parkinson’s, but certain genetic and environmental causes had been documented as significant contributors.
The incidence of Parkinson’s disease increases with age, but according to statistical data provided by the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF), an estimated 4% of the patients living with Parkinson’s are diagnosed before the age of 50.
There are no standard diagnostic tests for Parkinson’s, which makes this condition very difficult to catch early. Its diagnosis rests on the patient’s ability to capture an accurate personal and family medical history. At this point, scientists are developing a test that can assess biological markers like in blood tests. They are also imaging scans with the latest development being brain scans that can measure dopamine levels and brain metabolism. Unfortunately, these tests are performed only in highly specialized facilities and can be very pricey.
What Happens Inside the Body of a Parkinson’s Patient
Our brain is made up of cells called nerve cells or neurons. They produce dopamine, a compound that sends signals to the movement control center of the brain. Ample and continuous dopamine production allows us to move the way we intend. In an individual with Parkinson’s, the nerve cells break down, and the dopamine production is significantly decreased causing loss of movement control.
Nobody really knows why this happens. As of late, only the presence of Lewy bodies— the abnormal clumps of proteins in a Parkinson’s patient’s brain— serves as Parkinson’s biological hallmark. Its origin and development have been a point of inquiry for Parkinson’s researchers over the years.
Oxidative Stress: The Prime Suspect
One of the things that our body utilizes to produce energy is oxygen. As a result of this process, highly reactive molecules are produced. These are called free radicals that interact with other molecules within the cell. As free radicals are virtually unstable, they “oxidize” and subsequently damage the cells in a process known as oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is known to cause cell damage leading to cell death over time.
Scientists hypothesize that oxidative stress may be instrumental in the development of Parkinson’s as it causes cell breakdown. In fact, the conservative approach for Parkinson’s treatment research is thwarting oxidative stress.
Counteracting Oxidative Stress: The Antioxidant Approach
Antioxidants, as the name suggests, inhibit the process of oxidation. It is naturally produced by our body to defend itself. Their primary job is to neutralize potentially harmful free radicals. Antioxidant production is mainly controlled by our genetic makeup, but the influence of exposure to the environmental factors and lifestyle cannot be excluded.
A recent clinical trial involving antioxidants in Parkinson’s research had its focus on certain compounds that are believed to have the ability to halt oxidative stress. These compounds are creatine and Coenzyme Q10. Unfortunately, these trials failed which then redirected scientific attention to an antioxidant called urate. To date, research involving urate is about to undergo a phase III clinical trial.
Alpha-synuclein: A Parkinson’s Detour
Two independent studies led by Dr. Jeffrey Kordower of Rush University Medical Center and Dr. David Sulzer of Columbia University Medical Center respectively recently found a possible connection between the protein alpha-synuclein and the development of Parkinson’s disease.
Alpha-synuclein is normally produced by our body and is abundant in the brain. While its function in the normal human brain is unknown, it has held the interest of the scientific community since its discovery for they are the major constituents of Lewy bodies.
Parkinson’s treatment employing the vaccine approach that targets alpha-synuclein is now available. The vaccine developed by Austrian biotech AFFiRiS binds with the alpha-synuclein, and then clears it from the brain. This approach promises very effective Parkinson’s treatment and is now in its first stage of clinical testing.
Seizing the Disease Early: Parkinson’s Discovered Connection to Visual Problems
As Parkinson’s disease quietly develops over time and shows only physically perceivable symptoms when it’s already too late to control. Early diagnosis is key to either slowing its progression or altogether stopping it.
According to a study conducted by an Italian research team led by Dr. Alessandro Arrigo at the University Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Milan, “non-motor symptoms are common in all stages of the disease.” The study involved a total of 40 subjects made up of 20 newly diagnosed Parkinson’s patients and 20 normal individuals for the control group. The brain scans of the subjects with Parkinson’s had revealed significant irregularities in the visual system structures. Although still inconclusive at this point and still needing additional follow-up research, the study just opened a new door towards developing an effective treatment for Parkinson’s that focuses on the prevention instead of management.
The recently documented potential link of Parkinson’s disease to visual changes is a call for preventive action. A few of the symptoms that may increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s are color blindness, visual acuity changes, and reduced blinking. It is best to see a professional right away when you experience them.
Signs to Watch Out For
Parkinson’s impairs movement and muscle control, so you might want to watch out for the following early warning signs to prevent it from progressing:
- Handwriting changes. Parkinson’s causes muscle rigidity, so if you notice some significant changes in your penmanship, it may be because your hand muscles are starting to stiffen.
- Tremors in the hands and feet. It may not be as obvious as in someone already in the late stages of Parkinson’s, but it’s not normal for a person to have tremors if he or she is not doing anything to cause it like exercise or taking certain medications. It’s time to consult a physician if you’re having spontaneous tremors.
- Uncontrollable movements during sleep. Tossing and turning in bed in your sleep is normal. Thrashing around and kicking and punching during sleep, on the other hand, could be indicative of the early development of Parkinson’s.
- Stooped posture. If you have bone problems or an injury or feeling sick, then standing crookedly is natural. But if you’re involuntarily slouching, it could be an early sign.
- Masking. Having a serious, staring look is normal when you’re in a bad mood, but having that on a normal mood could be the early stages of Parkinson’s. This is called masking.
Life After the Diagnosis
Getting diagnosed with Parkinson’s isn’t really one of the best experiences in the world. Moreover, living with it poses a great deal of challenges that only increases over time, but there are ways of adapting a lifestyle that will work for you and make your activities of daily living easier.
While there are no prescribed lifestyle modifications for people living with Parkinson’s, a healthy diet and exercise regimen won’t hurt. Eating foods rich in fiber and drinking lots of water may help with constipation, which is common among Parkinson’s patients. Exercise helps in increasing muscle strength, flexibility, and balance with an added benefit of reducing stress and anxiety. There is life after the diagnosis. The key is surrounding yourself with a solid support group and understanding your condition more by reading reliable journals and research. Most importantly, work closely with your doctor and always ask for help.