Parkinson’s: An Expensive Epidemic
According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, more than 10 million people worldwide currently live with Parkinson’s Disease. By the year 2020, the United States will be home to almost 1 million people with Parkinson’s alone, which will be more than the number of those diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and muscular dystrophy combined. Between lost income, social security payments and treatment, The total cost of Parkinson’s amongst americans alone, directly and indirectly, is believed to be around the sum of $52 Billion annually, with medication costs at about $2,500 per year and therapeutic surgery ranging up to $100,000 a pop. Not only is this an unsettling predicament in the United States, it’s an expensive one, with no cure or effective treatment within sight. However, a John Hopkins medical research team has published promising findings in the Journal Neuron, suggesting the possibility that Parkinson’s disease may very well originate within the gut, before eventually traveling through the body’s neurons to enter the brain, which can help future researchers possibly find a better solution to this troubling issue in developing a worthwhile treatment.
The Origin of Parkinson’s Disease
The first clearly stated description of Parkinson’s disease was published as early as the year 1817 by James Parkinson, and would be later refined and expanded upon by Jean-Martin Charcot, distinguishing the disease from multiple sclerosis and other diseases known for causing tremor. Parkinson’s disease is considered a chronic progressive neurological disease, a movement disorder that is known to be associated with a decrease in dopamine production within the substantia nigra, a layer of deeply pigmented gray matter in the midbrain which contains dopamine producing nerve cells which secrete the feel-good compound, dopamine. Parkinson’s disease is specifically caused by the accumulation of a mis-folded protein in the brain cells, known as alpha-synuclein, which to this day, it’s function in a healthy brain is still a mystery. These “brain-clumps” damage nerve cells in the brain, causing the nerve cells to die off, in turn impairing one’s ability to think, move and even feel emotions.
The John Hopkins Study
Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering director, Ted Dawson, M.D., PhD, and his John Hopkin’s medical research team, recently made findings from a study performed on healthy mice injected with the mis-folded alpha-synuclein protein, tracking the progress of these proteins over a course of several month and leading to symptoms of Parkinson’s disease within the mice. This process was repeated for two other populations of mice- one population of mice that were genetically-engineered to be physically unable to produce the alpha-synuclein protein, and another population of mice with a severed vagus nerve (formerly known as the pneumogastric nerve), the tenth cranial nerve in our body which is known to interface with the parasympathetic control within our lungs, heart and digestive tract. The study yielded results showing that the populations without production of alpha-synuclein or a severed vagus nerve showed no signs of the mis-folded proteins, thus no symptoms of Parkinson’s. This group of fibers that delivers brain signals to various body’s organs, including the gut, may suggest a vitally direct link to these mis-folded proteins beginning their journey from the gut and eventually spreading into the brain.
Parkinson’s UK research manager, Dr. Beckie Port claimed these results were promising, stating that “By identifying and halting these changes before they reach the brain, we may be able to prevent the majority of Parkinson’s symptoms ever appearing and improve the lives of people who will be affected.” Ted Dawson would also comment, “These findings provide further proof of the gut’s role in Parkinson’s disease, and give us a model to study the disease’s progression from the start.”
The Link Between Gut Health and Mental Health
More and more research is being established regarding the importance of observing gut health as a precursor to mental health, and can even prevent symptoms of Parkinson’s and other cognitive diseases before they begin to take hold. Though we are still far off from a sure-fire treatment for this debilitating disease, these baby-steps in neuroscience will lead to great strides to the well-being of our loved ones who may potentially be victimized by this illness.
The Support of Friends and Family
One of the first steps to helping your loved one through this difficult disease, is to further educate yourself on what Parkinson’s is, and how to spot worsening symptoms by listening to the needs and feelings of your loved one. Take the time and patience to get them out of the house and become more active, occupying and exercising the mind with various activities to keep their mind sharp and moving. Up to 50% of those with Parkinson’s experience depression, which can also cause a decline in their physical movement. It is up to friends and family to let them know they have support, and they have the strength and will to endure.
Derek Dunston has worked in children’s entertainment for several years, through balloon art, magic, music, and educational games. He is working towards his B.A.S. in Secondary Mathematics grades 6-12 and has served Broward County Public Schools as a substitute teacher for three years. He plans to dedicate his life to child honoring and promoting inclusive/multicultural practices to benefit future communities in the fields of education and children’s entertainment.