The population of La Jolla is a vibrant blend of demographics, and seniors comprise a large portion of it; a recent study showed that residents over 65 comprise nearly a quarter of the population. With luxury senior communities and all the amenities at your fingertips, this slice of paradise in coastal San Diego county is perfect for retirees.
Which brings us to the discussion of Parkinson’s disease, whose onset typically manifests itself over the age of 50s. It’s a devastating neurodegenerative condition that is, unfortunately, relatively prevalent in the United States. In fact, the Parkinson’s Prevalence Project, a venture founded by the Parkinson’s Foundation in 2014, projects that over 1.2 million people in the United States will be living with Parkinson’s by 2030. As a result, many studies are underway to combat the disease.
Parkinson’s occurs when neurons in a particular portion of the brain known as the substantia nigra degenerate and die, leading to reduced amounts of dopamine, a critical chemical messenger in the brain produced by the substantia nigra. As other neurons lose access to dopamine, abnormal activity within the brain leads to the signature tremors, slow movements, rigid muscles, speech and writing changes, and inhibited motion. Currently, researchers have relatively limited knowledge about what causes the onset of Parkinson’s. However, the presence of Lewy bodies—clumps of alpha-synuclein proteins in the brain—occur in all individuals with the disease.
Current Parkinson’s Treatment
Current Parkinson’s treatments generally focus on reducing Parkinson’s symptoms, either by supplying dopamine-like chemicals to the brain or stimulating the brain itself. Common treatments include:
- Medications. There are several current medications approved for Parkinson’s treatment, all of which increase natural dopamine or substitute for dopamine. However, over time, the effects of these medications can diminish, allowing a resurgence of symptoms. In addition, medications do not halt or reverse the progression of Parkinson’s.
- Deep brain stimulation. This treatment aims to treat the effects of Parkinson’s disease with electrical stimulation of the brain. Electrodes are implanted deep within the brain, and are connected to a generator near the collarbone that sends electrical signals to the brain. Patients can experience reduced tremors, reduced involuntary movements, and reduced rigidity; however, deep brain stimulation does not prevent the progression of Parkinson’s and may cause infections, brain hemorrhage, even strokes.
Recent Advances in Parkinson’s Research
As researchers learn more about the mechanisms that cause Lewy body formation, neuron degeneration, and cell death, studies have begun to focus on reversing these processes to slow or halt the progression of Parkinson’s disease. Advances that have proven promising include:
- Gene therapy. This treatment involves placing a gene into a Parkinson’s patient’s brain via a catheter infusion that gives direct access to the patient’s deep brain structure. Gene therapy has been shown to reduce the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s and effectively help patients decrease the amount of medication needed to control other symptoms.
- Metal concentration research. Recent studies have found noticeably elevated levels of blood serum free copper and iron in Parkinson’s patients’ brains. The research concluded that exposure to certain metals can influence the alpha-synuclein protein aggregation, which is a key contributor of Parkinson’s-related neurodegeneration.
- Drug repurposing. While current drugs for Parkinson’s focus on the symptoms of the disease, new advancements in drug repurposing are underway. New drug combinations formerly used for diabetes, Gaucher disease, and others aim to target the triggers behind alpha-synuclein protein misfolding and aggregation to prevent inflammation, aid cell survival, and reduce transmission from cell to cell.
- Cell replacement. A procedure known as neural transplantation could prove useful in restoring degraded or destroyed neurons with pluripotent stem cells able to grow and develop into similar cells. In addition, better lab models of Parkinson’s affected tissue associated with pluripotent cell development have allowed extensive research into the disease’s underlying causes.
Hope for the Future
The future is promising as additional methods for treating the symptoms and underlying mechanisms behind Parkinson’s emerge. Until research identifies a cure, therapies will continue to help improve the lives of those living with Parkinson’s disease on a day-to-day basis.