A Peek at Parkinson’s: What’s New for the Old?
With the Pancakes for Parkinson’s event at Boston University nearing, on April 2nd, I thought it would be a good time to check up on the latest in Parkinson’s research.
Firstly, Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a motor disorder that affects dopaminergic neurons of the brain, which are necessary in the coordination of movement. Onset is usually around age 60, starting with symptoms including tremor, stiffness, slowness of movement, and poor balance and coordination. While current treatments can help alleviate the symptoms in patients, none provide a cure.
Second off, the mission of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and other support groups is to find better treatments for those suffering from the disease. With the Baby Boomer generation entering late adulthood and old age, more research needs to be done to better understand the disease and help those with it find relief. Consider stopping by the GSU Alley for some pancakes to show your support for the Foundation and its cause next month!
Ranging from studying food intake to using technology, many approaches have been used in PD research.
In a study released in February from the Harvard school of Public Health, flavonoids (citrin and Vitamin P), found in chocolates, citrus fruits, berries, and other foods, were speculated to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s Disease (PD).
The top 20% of males consuming these foods were 40% less likely to develop PD than the bottom 20%. While the overall flavonoid intake had no effect on women, a subclass of flavonoids called anthocyanins, which are primarily found in berries, did.
Study author Dr. Xiang Gao notes that this subclass has neuroprotective effects. Dr. Carlos Singer of UMiami’s Miller School of Medicine adds that the risk reduction “probably has to do with an antioxidant effect” because a lot of PD mechanisms deal with how nervous tissue handles oxidative stress.
Dr. Anna Hohler, a neurologist and professor at our very own, Boston University, was not involved in the study, but she comments on its benefits, saying that it “opens up a whole area of potential future studies examining other types of environmental effects on Parkinson’s.”
Hopefully, with more research we can determine whether these berries play a role in risk reduction. For now, Gao encourages us to eat berries anyway – they’re part of the reason why fruits and vegetables are so good for our health! Want to start a regular berry-eating habit? BU’s Mind and Brain Society is actually hosting another Miracle Berry event March 23rd. Soon enough, you can reap the benefits of berries, AND have a taste-altering experience – find out how bitter foods can taste quite sweet when these berries intervene then!
Berries are not the only things that affect PD. Drugs, of course, do. One drug is the psychostimulant – amphetamine. According to a study released in February, amphetamines may increase the risk of PD, in contrast to the berries. Researchers found that those using the amphetamines Benzedrine or Dexedrine at some point in their lives were 60% more likely to develop PD compared to those who never used. Why? According to the report, amphetamines affect the release and absorption of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with PD development. More on the mechanisms causing this difference still need attention.
Another drug to consider is apomorphine, which is used to alleviate PD patients’ motor symptoms. Amazingly, this drug has also been found to improve short-term memory in mice with Alzheimer’s Disease, which, like PD, affects brain function. According to a study released in October, 2010 by Japanese researchers at Kyushu University, the drug reduced the levels of amyloid beta, a protein that reduces brain cell function; it led mice to improve their times in a swimming test conducted before and after the drug was injected.
The results, indicating improved memory function, “will lead to the development of a new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease,” says Associate Professor Yasumasa Oyagi. His group plans to perform clinical testing on human patients to develop a drug with few or no side effects (apomorphine can cause nausea and vomiting).
While not directly influencing PD patients, this development is inspiring; perhaps drugs used to treat other neurodegenerative diseases can help treat PD as well.
In their study published March 4th, Researchers at John Hopkins found that, when the parkin gene is mutated in genetically altered mice, the protein PARIS accumulates since its degradation is blocked. Excess decreases the production of PGC-1alpha, a protein that protects brain cells, such that unprotected cells die and PD advances.
“Of all the important changes that lead to the death of brain cells as a result of parkin inactivation, our studies show that PARIS is, without a doubt, a key player,” says Ted Dawson, M.D., Ph.D., of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering.
A press release March 3rd announced that Stanford researchers used induced pluripotent stem cells to model PD. With the skin of a woman with a genetic form of PD, they derived neurons that replicated “some key features of the condition in a dish.” They hope to test treatments on and learn more about PD from these neurons.
A study published in September, 2010, demonstrates an approach to PD treatment through technology, specifically virtual reality. Researchers involved wanted to reduce “fall risk and difficulties with mobility, especially during complex or dual-task walking.”
Using virtual reality, they can better “incorporate principles of motor learning while delivering engaging and challenging training in complex environments.” At the end of the training, they observed a significant improvement in gait speed, particularly in walking, dual task, and facing overground obstacles. One month after the training, researchers still observed these effects. The group hopes to continue research on motor learning and fall risk reduction.
From a review published in January, neuroscientists examined studies on Theory of Mind (ToM), “the ability to infer other people’s mental states,” in those with PD. They found “preliminary evidence that ToM difficulties may occur in PD patients,” particularly in the “cognitive component of ToM in the early stages of the disease.”
Paul Green of Westport, CT was diagnosed with PD 17 years ago. Since then, he has searched for ways to slow its progression, finding some that have allowed him to live into his 80s. Now 87, he denies that symptoms like depression and tremor will occur.
Compiling his research, he wrote a booklet on his conclusion that progression can be slowed with “vigorous exercise.” Using this and his foundation Nevah Surrendah to Parkinson’s (inspired by Winston Churchill’s use of “nevah” in WWII), he aims to help others with PD.
He believes that with “prescription drugs, deliberate exercise and changes in nutrition and attitude they can enjoy a full life.” He continues, “What works for one person might not be as helpful for another. However, it’s vital that people ‘nevah’ stop trying to improve their physical, spiritual and emotional condition.”
Whether people eat more berries, exercise more, or cut down on amphetamines, they are making attempts to fight PD. Thanks to the research using so many different approaches, a lot has been discovered about the disease. However, it is quite clear that many more studies need to be carried out to affirm the conclusions above and better understand the mechanisms of PD. For now, with awareness and support of Parkinson’s Disease research, the goal is to find the best treatments for patients and most earnestly a cure.
Sources: Berries may offer sweet protection against Parkinson’s — Steven Reinberg of The Jackson Sun; Certain foods could reduce risk of Parkinson’s? Berry possible. – Tyler Moss of Northwest Indiana (NWI) Times; Parkinson’s drug ‘helped mice with Alzheimer’s’ – The Daily Yomiuri; Can Prescription Amphetamine Use Raise Parkinson’s Risk? – Stacy Lipson of Bloomberg Newsweek; Johns Hopkins Team Explores Paris; Finds A Key To Parkinson’s – Press release by Maryalice Yakutchik; Stanford scientists create neurons with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease from patient’s skin cells – Press release by Krista Conger; Virtual Reality for Gait Training: Can It Induce Motor Learning to Enhance Complex Walking and Reduce Fall Risk in Patients With Parkinson’s Disease? – Anat Mirelman, et al. from the Journals of Gerontology; Theory of Mind in Parkinson’s disease – Michele Poletti et al. from ScienceDirect; Westport man refuses to surrender to Parkinson’s – Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn of Westport News