Between 1 to 1 ½ million Americans are affected by Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the central nervous system. Parkinson’s disease usually affects people age 50 or older but about 10 to 20 percent of people with Parkinson’s are diagnosed before the age of 50. The four primary symptoms include rigidity of the limbs, tremors, slow movement (bradykinesia) and postural instability (which is perceived as a loss of balance and unsteadiness sometimes with falls). There is not a definitive lab test and the diagnosis is made by a neurologist who evaluates the patient.
Treatment with Medications
Standard treatment of Parkinson’s disease is with medications. These medications attempt to replace the missing dopamine in the brain or affect the use of dopamine in the brain. Other drugs, called dopamine agonists, help to make the dopamine-sensitive brain cells work better. Additional drugs are under development.
One surgical technique for treating Parkinson’s disease is thalamotomy and pallidotomy, which destroy the “trouble-causing” cells in the brain using an electrode.
Another technique involves the high-frequency stimulation of a part of the brain called the subthalamic nucleus. This is known as Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). The setting of the DBS neurostimulator is easily adjustable by an external magnetic control — without further surgery — if the patient’s condition changes. Unlike previous surgeries for Parkinson’s disease, DBS does not damage healthy brain tissue by destroying nerve cells. DBS blocks electrical signals from targeted areas in the brain. Thus, if newer, more promising treatments develop in the future, the fine DBS electrodes can be removed without resulting injury to the brain.
An experimental surgical technique to treat Parkinson’s disease is the transplantation of brain tissue using genetically-altered human cells, human fetal tissue, human stem cells, or pig cells induced to produce dopamine.