About Parkinsons


What is Parkinson’s Disease?


Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, progressive neurological disorder, resulting from the loss of neurons in a specific area of the brain involved in motor function.

It is diagnosed based on 4 primary symptoms:

1) Tremor – trembling of hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face
2) Rigidity – stiffness of limbs and trunk
3) Bradykinesia – slowness in starting and executing movements
4) Postural instability – difficulty with balance and coordination
Although Parkinson's disease is primarily categorized as a movement disorder, we know that there are a number of other, non-motor symptoms that occur prior to, or concurrent with the progression of the motor symptoms. These symptoms affect patients, their families, and their quality of life negatively, and are the focus of many of our studies. Non-motor symptoms associated with Parkinson's include: Depression, anxiety and/or other changes in mood
Difficulties with swallowing, chewing, speech
Digestion and urinary tract problems, such as constipation or incontinence
Changes in automatic body functions, such as blood pressure, sweating
Difficulty with sleep
Cognitive changes Olfactory changes (sense of smell)

Who has Parkinson's Disease?
It is estimated that approximately half a million people suffer from Parkinson’s Disease in the United States, with about 50,000 new cases reported annually. As the population ages and more people live longer lives, these numbers are expected to increase. Most cases of Parkinson’s Disease are diagnosed in people over the age of 50, and the chances of developing the disease increase with age. However, about 5 to 10% of patients develop symptoms before the age of 50.
What causes Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s Disease occurs when neurons in the substantia nigra degenerate. This region of the brain is part of a motor system called the basal ganglia, which is responsible for producing smooth and purposeful movements. Although a number of genetic mutations have been linked to Parkinson’s Disease, the mechanism of cellular death is not well known. Moreover, recent studies have shown strong involvement of other brain regions and neurotransmitter systems with the progression of the disease.
Is Parkinson’s Disease Inherited?
Although a number of familial Parkinson’s Disease have been reported and the genetic defects which are responsible for the disease have been found, most cases of PD are not inherited. The cause for the majority of PD cases is unknown, but scientists believe that a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental interactions may lead to the disease.
Are there environmental factors that cause Parkinson’s Disease?
Researchers have long suspected a link between exposure to certain environmental toxins and Parkinson’s disease. Our scientists are conducting extensive studies in both humans and animal models to determine the exact interplay of pesticide exposure, genetic susceptibility, and risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
How is Parkinson’s Disease Diagnosed?
Currently, there are no blood or laboratory tests available to diagnose Parkinson’s Disease. A comprehensive neurological exam and review of medical history are used for diagnosis. Since there are other diseases which cause symptoms similar to Parkinson’s Disease, sometime a physician may use brain scans, or evaluate a patient’s response to medications to help in an accurate diagnosis.
How can research at the center help patients with Parkinson’s disease?
Until recently, our only clue about the cellular defect leading to Parkinson’s Disease was the unexplained death of Dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra, whose loss was assumed to also cause neuronal dysfunction and loss in other brain regions. More recent evidence however, suggests that the pathological alterations in extra-nigral brain regions may precede the nigral pathology. However, since disease symptoms appear only after approximately half of the neurons have already degenerated, therapeutic options have limited benefits. With the discovery of a number of genetic mutations that cause an inherited form of Parkinson’s Disease, and subsequent generation of mouse models harboring the same kinds of mutations, we are now able to study the events which take place prior to the death of dopaminergic neurons, enabling us to develop targeted therapies which would prevent the neuronal degeneration in the first place.