James Parkinson – 200 Years On

By David Winlo

This year marks two hundred years since the discovery of a progressive neurological condition by James Parkinson, which was then called Shaking Palsy, but is now known with his name, as Parkinson’s disease. What did he discover? And what progress has since been made in its treatment?

Parkinson’s usually develops after the age of 50, when cells in a part of the brain called the Substantia nigra begin to die, affecting the production of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter. It is characterised by muscular tremors, stiffness, and difficulty walking and speaking, as well as other symptoms and potential complications. The causes are not entirely understood. It is possible that there is a genetic predisposition for the illness, and there are known environmental risk factors, which include exposure to certain pesticides and head trauma, with the latter being highlighted as the reason for famous boxer Muhammad Ali’s diagnosis with the illness. The severity of the effects varies from person to person, but the disease is both chronic and progressive, meaning not only does it not disappear, it gets worse over time.

Fortunately, the two hundred years since its identification have brought great progress, and whilst the illness remains incurable, it is more treatable now than it ever has been. Drugs such as levodopa help to manage the symptoms, though they often have side-effects of their own, and various physio- and speech therapies help people with Parkinson’s stay healthy and active. In the future it is hoped that both these treatment methods will become more effective, and that with the advancement of stem cell technology, among other new methods, the disease may one day be eradicated.

If you or someone you know has Parkinson’s disease, you can find out more about it from the website of the charity Parkinson’s UK, where you can also donate to help fund care for people with Parkinson’s and research into a cure.

Image “Brain” by GreenFlames09 licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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