Parkinson’s disease is a condition that affects the brain, resulting in a progressive loss of coordination and movement problems. The disease is named after a British physician, James Parkinson, who first published a description of it in 1817.
Parkinson’s is characterized by the death and dysfunction of neurons (nerve cells) in part of the brain called the substantia nigra. In particular, Parkinson’s is marked by problems with dopaminergic neurons, meaning nerve cells that communicate with other neurons by releasing a signaling molecule, or neurotransmitter, called dopamine.
The exact biological processes that lead to the death and dysfunction of dopaminergic neurons in Parkinson’s are not completely understood. Both environmental and genetic factors are thought to play a role in determining whether or not a person will develop Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s disease can cause characteristic motor symptoms such as tremor, abnormally slow movements (bradykinesia), and muscle rigidity.
Patients often have problems with balance and walking, and may also experience abnormal muscle contractions, involuntary movements, or freezing. Many people with Parkinson’s have abnormally small handwriting.
Parkinson’s also can cause non-motor symptoms such as cognitive impairment, depression, sleep problems, and hallucinations or delusions. Some patients may experience uncontrollable outbursts of crying or laughing that are unrelated to their emotions.
Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, which means its symptoms start off gradually and then worsen over time.
Parkinson’s is diagnosed not by a single test but by examining an individual’s signs, symptoms, and history. A variety of medical tests can help to diagnose Parkinson’s and rule out other diseases that may cause similar symptoms.
Most people diagnosed with Parkinson’s have primary or idiopathic parkinsonism, better known simply as Parkinson’s disease. Patients with a family history may be said to have familial Parkinson’s, while those diagnosed before the age of 50 are said to have early-onset disease.
Other conditions — such as dementia with Lewy bodies, corticobasal degeneration, progressive supranuclear palsy, and multiple system atrophy — can cause symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease, but stem from different underlying biological causes. These diseases are referred to as secondary or atypical parkinsonism, sometimes called Parkinson’s Plus.
Treatment and prognosis
There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease. Nonetheless, a variety of medications are available that can ease symptoms and improve quality of life. Many of these medicines work by increasing the amount and/or activity of dopamine in the brain.
Other medications, as well as non-drug interventions, may help to ease specific symptoms or make it easier to manage daily life. Researchers are actively working to develop new therapies for Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s itself does not cause death, but it can put substantial strain on the body and make people more vulnerable to life-threatening infections such as pneumonia. With advances in care, most people with Parkinson’s disease today have a normal or near-normal life expectancy.
Last updated: Sept. 27, 2021
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