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Parkinson's Awareness Week

Parkinsons Awareness Week Charities aim to raise money for vital research

There’s no test for it, its causes are largely unknown and it can’t yet be cured.

And contrary to widespread belief, Parkinson’s disease is not just an affliction of the aged – it can strike seemingly fit younger adults, too.

Yet despite the pressing need for funding to help find a cure, public awareness around the illness is sadly lacking, say experts.

That’s why, for Parkinson’s Awareness Week (April 16-22), the major charities are joining forces to spread the word about the condition and the need to raise money to help drive vital research.

So what is the condition and who can it afflict?

Parkinson’s is a chronic – which means persistent – disorder of part of the brain. It mainly affects the way the brain co-ordinates the movements of the muscles in various parts of the body.

While it usually occurs in people over the age of 50, becoming more common the older you get, it can also develop in the under-50s. High profile younger sufferers include the actor Michael J Fox and boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

It is caused by a loss of a specific type of brain cell that produces dopamine, a chemical which transmits messages between the brain and the nervous system. When around 80 per cent of these cells have died, the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease begin to appear. What causes the loss of these cells is unknown.

Although Parkinson’s is not usually hereditary there is a possible genetic link among people who develop it before the age of 50.

Around 127,000 people in the UK – one in every 500 - are affected, with predictions that those figures are set to rise and even double over the next 50 years.

Its main symptoms – which typically worsen over time - are:

  • Stiffness, including the sense that muscles are more tense and arms do not tend to swing as much when you walk
  • Shaking or tremor, typically affecting fingers, thumbs, hands and arms and most noticeable when resting
  • Slowness of movement, for instance finding it more of an effort to walk or get up from a chair, with a ‘shuffling’ walking pattern often developing

For some people it may take several years before the symptoms can begin to have a negative effect on daily life. Often one side of the body may be affected more than the other.

There are also a number of other effects that may develop, including fewer facial expressions, difficulty with fine movements such as buttoning shirts or tying laces, problems with handwriting, balance and posture, speech becoming slow and monotonous and swallowing becoming troublesome.

Because there is no test to prove a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, when symptoms are mild and in the early stages it can be difficult to be conclusive. Often a specialist referral is necessary to rule out other illnesses and determine whether Parkinson’s is the culprit.

Although it is incurable, and treatment cannot halt the progression of the disease, the good news is that therapies and medications can provide good relief from symptoms for several years.

And as Parkinson’s UK points out: “Our researchers tell us a breakthrough is closer than ever before. That's why we'll need your help during Parkinson's Awareness Week to raise money to find a cure, as well as raising awareness.”

Only this month it was revealed that a British woman stricken with Parkinson’s can now write for the first time in 15 years thanks to a revolutionary new gene therapy trial.

Sheila Roy, who was diagnosed in her 40s, is one of 15 people in the world to undergo the treatment, which involves a groundbreaking ‘one shot injection’ called ProSavin that helps transport the nerve-controlling chemical dopamine into the motor centre of her brain.

The procedure was carried out by doctors at Addenbroke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

[Related story: Revolutionary new treatment for Parkinson's]

Dr Philip Buttery, from the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair, said although the research was still at an early stage, the treatment appeared to be having positive results.

“It seems to be having an overall beneficial effect in smoothing out people’s days, probably allowing a slight dose reduction in medication, and in some patients a better sleep pattern and a better quality of life for all,” he said.

But larger scale studies are needed to confirm that the therapy is safe and effective.

Dr Kieran Breen, director of research at Parkinson’s UK added: "Gene therapies hold great promise for people with Parkinson's in the future, as they could mean an end to the daily regime of drugs that most people with the condition currently face.

"Parkinson's UK is currently funding £750,000 worth of cutting-edge gene therapy research in the UK, which we believe could take these treatments to the next level.”

For more information see: Parkinson's UK

This article was published on Mon 16 April 2012



Image © Sebastian Kaulitzki - Fotolia.com


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