William’s suicide thrust Parkinson’s disease onto the world stage recently. The progressive neurological disorder affects about 60,000 Americans each year. Well-known people like Michael J. Fox, Muhammad Ali and Janet Reno join the million or so Americans who struggle with symptoms such as tremors, vocal spasms and perhaps one of its most overlooked symptom—depression. This week, two scientists, Drs. Mahlon Delong and Alim-Louis Benabid were honored for their roles in developing a surgical technique to reduce tremors and restore motor function in patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease—a treatment that has benefited more than 100,000 individuals worldwide.
Parkinson’s disease results from a loss of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Replacement therapy could eliminate the symptoms. Scientists found that specific regions in the basal ganglia, an area of the brain that controls voluntary motor movements, procedural learning, routine behaviors such as teeth grinding, eye movements, cognition and emotion. Key symptoms of Parkinson’s disease such as slowness, tremor and rigidity were control immediately in animal models by de-activating the subthalamic nucleus, thus laying the groundwork for treatment of the disease by high frequency deep brain stimulation by electrical impulses similar to a pacemaker. The benefits of the treatment has been shown in clinical trials to persist for years after treatment to improve motor function and quality of life. The treatment though is purely symptomatic therapy. It does not cure Parkinson’s disease, it relieves the symptoms of it. To read more about the award and the therapy, please read this JAMA article.