Is there hope for a cure?
By Allan R. Handysides and Peter N. Landless
My husband has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and I’m worried about how his future will unfold. I dread him having more pain. Could you inform me about Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease is not completely understood, and yet it’s the focus of intense investigation. The main features of Parkinson’s disease are the onset of tremor—which is present at rest—slowing of movement, increased muscle rigidity, and a decline in the reflexes that govern posture. Pain is not usually a significant feature, although it may be present in the later stages.
In most cases, however, the disease progresses very slowly, taking many years to reach full expression. So we would suggest that you not worry about the “maybes” and focus on enjoying the life you have with your husband now. To be informative to you and your husband, though, and to give you some hope, we will say more.
As Parkinson’s disease progresses, it affects the control of muscles, so there may be some symptoms beyond tremor and alteration in walking. Speech may become very hesitant and slow, and swallowing can become more difficult. Sometimes a person with Parkinson’s has difficulty with control of the mouth, tongue, and swallowing, and may drool a little. The later stages may involve a shuffling gait with small steps, which at times is interrupted by “stops” that the patient cannot control. The facial features also become more frozen, so spontaneous emotions may not flicker across the face as they used to.
Parkinson’s disease can be confused with other neurological diseases, so consultation with a neurologist is strongly recommended.
There may be several causes of Parkinson’s disease, but all causes are not known. Genetic markers that are causally associated with the familial form of Parkinson’s disease have been identified.* It is the accumulation in the brain cells of the midbrain’s “substantia nigra” of materials called alpha synuclein and ubiquitin that is typical of Parkinson’s. These intracellular substances are clumped in deposits called “Lewy bodies,” and it’s believed that they are an accumulation of damaged cell materials that trigger the death of the brain cells in which they are accumulating.
The brain cells in this part of the brain are very important regulators of movement. Normally they produce chemicals that regulate the interaction between the cells. One of these chemicals is called dopamine.
No infectious agent has been identified as causing Parkinson’s, but in animals some toxins, such as pesticides, have been shown to produce similar symptoms, although not always with the accumulation of Lewy bodies.
Some anti-inflammatory agents have been shown in some cases to beneficially modify Parkinson’s. Not all of them work, however, and it seems that the special group called COX inhibitors are required.
Treatment with a medicine called Levodopa helps with Parkinson’s. There also are multiple medications used to affect muscle rigidity, tremor, and so forth, but these only control symptoms.
Currently there is a lot of interest in stem-cell therapy. Stem-cell treatments carry many unknown possibilities, and in animal models of Parkinson’s, improvements with stem cells have occurred. Such work fits with the theory of an autoimmune mechanism being at work in Parkinson’s.
While there is not yet a cure for Parkinson’s, a huge amount of study is going on, and one never knows when a real breakthrough may come.
Keep your faith and courage strong, for it is not only in this world that we have hope. We trust Jesus, who promised to come again and take us to a heavenly home where there will be no more sickness.
* J. Simón-Sánchez, C. Schulte, J. M. Bras, “Genome-wide Association Study Reveals Genetic Risk Underlying Parkinson’s Disease,” Nature Genetics 41, no. 12 (2009): 1308-1312 (online:www.Nature.com); W. Satake et al., “Genome-wide Association Study Identifies Common Variants at Four Loci as Genetic Risk Factors for Parkinson’s Disease,” Nature Genetics 41, no. 12 (2009): 1303-1307 (online: www.Nature.com).
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist,
is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist,
is an associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.