Parkinson's in the Public Eye
Recent coverage tells of personal stories, advances in research
Dec. 12, 2001 -- Michael J. Fox brought Parkinson's disease to the forefront when he announced in 1998 that he had been coping with the brain disease for seven years. And now, prominent journalist Michael Kinsley is announcing his almost decade-long struggle with Parkinson's.
The disease, which is believed to affect 1 million Americans, causes specialized nerves in the brain to weaken and die over time, causing tremors, movement problems, and muscular stiffness.
But even before Fox went public, former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno announced her battle with Parkinson's in a matter-of-fact way during one of her weekly news conferences.
Since then, doctors have also chimed in, speculating whether boxing legend Muhammad Ali developed the disease as a result of his celebrated career in the ring. And at the start of this year, an Italian surgeon touched off a mild scandal when, in a magazine article, he was reported to attribute Pope John Paul II's tremors and frailness to the disease. The doctor, a member of the pontiff's medical team, later said the magazine misquoted him.
Now, in the most recent announcement, Kinsley reports he has been in denial for eight years that he has the disease. In his Time magazine essay, he spells it all out with much flair, noting the other prominent people in the same boat and calling Parkinson's "fashionable these days." Kinsley has been a co-anchor of CNN's Crossfire.
He gives one very telling reason as to why he kept his disease a secret.
Kinsley, 50, was offered the editorship of The New Yorker three years ago, but the offer was withdrawn after he told them that he had Parkinson's, according to a report by the Associated Press.
But researchers press on, and just last month, scientists made several announcements on recent Parkinson's discoveries.
Genes play a bigger role in Parkinson's than suspected.
Researchers reporting in the Nov. 14 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association say that they have identified genes linked to the more common form of the disease that affects people late in life.
The finding shows that because genes are involved, Parkinson's is not due to environmental factors alone.
After screening about 900 people who either had the disease or had two or more family members with it, the investigators found the tau gene plays a role in Parkinson's. It already had been identified as contributing to other neurological diseases like Alzheimer's.
In healthy people, the tau gene makes protein that maintains brain cells. In Alzheimer's, the gene becomes defective, creating the tell-tale tangles that characterize that disease. Those tangles are not present in Parkinson's, so tau may play a more subtle role.
Researchers also noted another gene called parkin, which, when defective, is suspected to cause a form of the disease early in life. It also comes into play in the later-onset type.
Being able to identify which genes are responsible for Parkinson's could lead to better ways to identify which people may be at increased risk of developing it. This would allow closer monitoring and treatment. Genetic therapies may one day be a possibility as well, where faulty genes are switched out for healthy ones.
People with Parkinson's may one day be treated with an antibiotic.
Researchers in the U.S. and Germany have demonstrated that the antibiotic minocycline could be a successful treatment for people with the disease.
When lab mice are given a toxin called MPTP, they develop nerve problems that are a lot like Parkinson's -- unless they are given minocycline.
This has nothing to do with killing germs. Doctors have known the drug can do other things as well, such as fight inflammation. But when the mice were given the drug before or after the toxin was given, the mice didn't get the expected brain damage.
If scientists can figure out what it is about this drug that is protecting the brain cells, it's possible that they could develop a treatment for people with Parkinson's or even those who may be at risk of developing it.
Brain stimulation helps people with the disease now.
There is no cure for Parkinson's. But people with the disease are given a drug called levodopa to help make up for the brain chemical dopamine that becomes more scarce as the disease progresses.
Trouble is, levodopa doesn't work forever, and after years of use, the drug can wear off and people may develop tremors again that are tough to treat.
Doctors are learning that surgically implanting electrodes into deep regions in the brain can help. The electrodes stimulate certain brain centers and reduce the motion problems that occur with the disease.
A dozen study participants found they could walk better and move a finger faster with the stimulation. The device works with a generator implanted near the collarbone to connect to the deeply placed electrodes. The experimental treatment is being developed not to replace drug treatment, but to offer some help when drugs begin to wear off -- and even to complement drugs.
As the year ends, one thing seems clear: the future will bring more announcements of personal battles with Parkinson's and more research discoveries as doctors learn more about fighting the disease.