Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease (PD, also known as idiopathic or primaryparkinsonism, hypokinetic rigid syndrome/HRS, or paralysis agitans) is adegenerative disorder of the central nervous system. The motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease result from the death of dopamine-generating cells in the substantia nigra, a region of the midbrain; the cause of this cell death is unknown. Early in the course of the disease, the most obvious symptoms aremovement-related; these include shaking, rigidity, slowness of movement and difficulty with walking and gait. Later, thinking and behavioral problems may arise, with dementia commonly occurring in the advanced stages of the disease, whereas depression is the most common psychiatric symptom. Other symptoms include sensory, sleep and emotional problems. Parkinson’s disease is more common in older people, with most cases occurring after the age of 50.

The main motor symptoms are collectively called parkinsonism, or a “parkinsonian syndrome”. Parkinson’s disease is often defined as a parkinsonian syndrome that is idiopathic (having no known cause), although some atypical cases have a genetic origin.

Modern treatments are effective at managing the early motor symptoms of the disease, mainly through the use of levodopaand dopamine agonists. As the disease progresses and dopaminergic neurons continue to be lost, these drugs eventually become ineffective at treating the symptoms and at the same time produce a complication called dyskinesia, marked by involuntary writhing movements. Diet and some forms of rehabilitation have shown some effectiveness at alleviating symptoms. Surgery and deep brain stimulation have been used to reduce motor symptoms as a last resort in severe cases where drugs are ineffective. Research directions include investigations into new animal models of the disease and of the potential usefulness of gene therapy, stem cell transplants and neuroprotective agents. Medications to treat non-movement-related symptoms of PD, such as sleep disturbances and emotional problems, also exist.

The disease is named after the English doctor James Parkinson, who published the first detailed description in An Essay on the Shaking Palsy in 1817. Several major organizations promote research and improvement of quality of life of those with the disease and their families. Public awareness campaigns include Parkinson’s disease day (on the birthday of James Parkinson, 11 April) and the use of a red tulip as the symbol of the disease. People with parkinsonism who have increased the public’s awareness of the condition include actor Michael J. Fox, Olympic cyclist Davis Phinney, and professional boxer Muhammad Ali.