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What is Parkinson's disease?

Though millions of people across the globe are living with Parkinson's disease, many people have limited knowledge of this disorder. The extent of many people's experience with or knowledge of Parkinson's disease begins and ends with Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox, two high-profile personalities who have publicly acknowledged their fight against this potentially debilitating disorder.

As much as Ali and Fox have done to bring awareness to Parkinson's disease, the disorder largely remains a mystery, even to those medical researchers who have devoted their lives to finding both a cause and a cure for Parkinson's. But there are some things the medical community does know about Parkinson's, and a greater understanding of this disease might help find a cause once and for all.



What is Parkinson's disease?

Parkinson's is a chronic and progressive movement disorder, which means the symptoms will continue and worsen over time. Parkinson's involves the malfunction and death of nerve cells in the brain known as neurons. Some of these neurons are responsible for producing dopamine, a chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. As Parkinson's progresses, less dopamine is produced, making it more difficult for a person with Parkinson's to control his or her body's movements.



What are some symptoms of Parkinson's?

Symptoms of Parkinson's disease vary from individual to individual, but the Parkinson's Disease Foundation notes that the primary motor signs of Parkinson's include:

* tremor of the hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face

* bradykinesia, or slowness of movement

* rigidity or stiffness of the limbs and trunk

* postural instability or impaired balance and coordination

Parkinson's progresses slowly, and a person might begin to feel somewhat weak and notice slight tremors. These tremors gradually progress to additional symptoms. For example, a person might notice their voluntary movements, such as walking or even rolling over in bed, have become slower. Other symptoms can include difficulty rising from a sitting position or, in the later stages, difficulty swallowing.



Are there any known causes of Parkinson's disease?

There is no known cause for Parkinson's disease, but scientists are exploring a potential relationship between the loss of cells in other areas of the brain and body and Parkinson's disease. According to the PDF, scientists have discovered that signs of Parkinson's disease have been found not only in the mid-brain but also in the brain stem and the olfactory bulb.

Concerned men and women who have or have had a family member with Parkinson's disease often want to know if there is a genetic link. Evidence to a possible genetic link remains highly controversial and inconclusive, so any potential genetic implications regarding Parkinson's disease remain unclear.

Some evidence has suggested that toxins in the environment may cause Parkinson's disease. These toxins, which include manganese, carbon monoxide and carbon disulfide, may selectively destroy the neurons that produce dopamine, potentially causing Parkinson's as a result.

Certain medications and street drugs have also been known to produce symptoms similar to those associated with Parkinson's. Antipsychotics used to treat severe paranoia and schizophrenia as well as MPTP, a synthetic heroin contaminant, can cause Parkinson's-like symptoms.

More information about Parkinson's disease is available at www.pdf.org.