NINDS Recognizes Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month

This month is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness month and, even as a child neurologist, I find myself thinking about how much we have learned and how much we have yet to learn about this common neurodegenerative condition.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive movement disorder that primarily affects people over the age of 65. However, an estimated four percent of people with Parkinson’s are diagnosed with “early onset Parkinson’s disease,” meaning that they were diagnosed before age 50. Clinically, Parkinson’s disease is characterized by slowness of movement (bradykinesia), rhythmic shaking of the limbs and head (tremor), inflexibility of the limbs (rigidity), and loss of the balancing mechanism (postural control).

In addition to these classic “motor” or movement-related symptoms, people with Parkinson’s also experience a range of symptoms affecting daily activities, including fatigue, pain, changes in mood and thinking, difficulties sleeping, issues with eating and swallowing, and bladder and bowel problems. Under the microscope, the brains of patients who had Parkinson’s disease all show abnormal clumps of proteins, called Lewy bodies, and the loss of nerve cells that make the chemical dopamine.

What has become clear is that Parkinson’s represents a complex spectrum with shared characteristics, including a classic trio of motor symptoms and similar end-term brain changes, but also with a range of physical manifestations such that the experience of each person with Parkinson’s is unique.

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