With over 200,000 new cases in America alone each year, Parkinson’s disease is a common threat. The disease can begin innocuously enough with a slight tremor in just one hand. However, it can progress from that into a disease that radically reduces an individual’s quality of life. However, that progression may be slow, or it may be very quick.
What Is Parkinson’s Disease?
According to the National Institutes of Health, Parkinson’s disease, or PD,
“belongs to a group of conditions called motor system disorders, which are the result of the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells…PD usually affects people over the age of 60. Early symptoms of PD are subtle and occur gradually. In some people, the disease progresses more quickly than in others. As the disease progresses, the shaking, or tremor, which affects the majority of people with PD, may begin to interfere with daily activities.”
The disease affects the area of the brain called the substantia nigra. Here, it reduces the number of dopamine-producing neurons, or brain cells. This affects a wide range of factors, as the substantia nigra is the area of the brain that governs how you control your body.
What Are the Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?
Symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease are widely varied. A great deal depends on the severity of the condition at the time, but it also depends on the individual in question. It may start with something as simple as a tremor in a single hand, and may not be noticeable for many years. During that time, the disease continues to worsen, until more serious symptoms are noticed.
Other symptoms that might present during early stages of the disease include a lack of expression on the face, and an inability to swing your arms naturally. Slurred speech is another early sign.
As the disease progresses, additional symptoms appear and original symptoms worsen. For instance, many people find that their movements are slower and more difficult. Even walking short distances can be time consuming and painful. Muscles can become stiff and rigid, and you may lose your sense of balance. Maintaining a correct posture becomes difficult or impossible, and some patients notice that they lose the ability to perform unconscious movements, such as blinking.
What Causes Parkinson’s Disease?
There is no known cause of Parkinson’s disease, but there is a great deal of speculation and research is ongoing. Currently, there are a number of known contributing factors that play a role in who develops the disease. Genetics is one of these – those with family members who suffer from Parkinson’s are more likely to develop it themselves. Exposure to toxins and other environmental factors is also thought to play a role.
Researchers have found that the presence of Lewy bodies in the brain are an indicator of the progression of the disease, but may also yield information about the underlying cause of the condition, as is the protein alpha-synuclein, which is found within Lewy bodies.
Are There Conventional Treatments Available?
There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. However, the disease is often manageable with the right medication regimen. However, this may vary from one individual to another. The most common medication is a combination of levodopa and carbidopa, which helps to replace the dopamine in the brain lost with the destruction of neurons. However, this combination is often only able to alleviate some of the symptoms of the disease. For example, while many patients will find that muscle stiffness is reduced, the medication may not reduce hand tremors. Anticholinergics may be prescribed to help with tremor control.
In addition to medication, physical therapy is often used to help alleviate the symptoms of this disease. Speech therapy and occupational therapy may also be needed depending on the extent of symptoms.
In other situations, doctors may decide that surgery is necessary. One procedure that may help is the implantation of electrodes in the brain connected to a generator implanted under the collarbone. This sends electrical stimulation to the brain to reduce symptoms.
Other treatments are less medicinal in nature – lifestyle changes, such as eating a balanced diet and getting more exercise, have shown to help reduce some of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease.
How Might Stem Cell Therapy Help?
Due to their role in the body’s healing and regenerative system, stem cells have been heavily studied for their applicability in treating diseases of the brain, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. A number of promising studies involving animals have been conducted thus far.
For instance, in late 2017, a study was published in the journal Nature showed that manmade stem cells could have a positive impact for patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute is also working on a method for transforming stem cells into new neurons within the brain to replace those damaged by the disease. Perhaps more importantly, this research is shedding new light on the underlying cause of Parkinson’s disease in the first place, such as mis-folding of proteins, which could theoretically be reversed.
Another promising source of help is the California Stem Cell Agency, which published information about a study involving stem cells and their use on monkeys with induced Parkinson’s-like symptoms in 2017.
A Note on Stem Cell Types
While autologous stem cells are the most frequently used in clinical studies, these are not ideal solutions. Autologous stem cells are sourced from the patient in question, which means they have lost most of their energy over the patient’s lifetime, and have limited regenerative capabilities.
A better option is the use of allogeneic stem cells, which are sourced from banked umbilical cord blood and tissue. These are very young, highly energetic cells with undiminished regenerative capabilities. They are also immuno-naïve, meaning that the immune system will not react negatively to their presence.
Stem cell therapy shows enormous promise for treating Parkinson’s sufferers, although research remains in the early stages. Currently, no stem cell therapy is approved by the FDA, and all such treatments are considered experimental only.