Complications from Parkinson’s Disease rank as the 14th leading cause of death in the United States. The disease is estimated to affect one in 100 people over age 60, and while there is not currently a cure, medications, therapy and surgery can be helpful in lessening symptoms.
“Parkinson’s disease is much more than a mobility issue. Depression is often one of the first non-motor symptoms of the disease and can prompt an initial evaluation,” said Melissa Houser, M.D., neurologist and clinical director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorder Center at Scripps Clinic. “In addition to tremors and other visible signs of Parkinson’s Disease, non-motor symptoms might include sexual and urinary dysfunction, anxiety, memory loss and confusion.”
In Parkinson’s disease, nerve cells in the brain degenerate and are unable to produce dopamine, a chemical that helps control muscle movement. Parkinson’s disease most often develops after age 50. It is one of the most common nervous system problems in older adults.
Symptoms affecting movement may be mild at first. For instance, there might be a mild tremor or a slight feeling that one leg is stiff and dragging. Symptoms may affect one or both sides of the body. Additional problems might include:
- Problems with balance and walking
- Rigid or stiff muscles
- Difficulty starting movement, such as starting to walk or getting out of a chair
- Difficulty continuing to move
- Slowed movements
- Loss of small hand movements. Hand writing may become small and difficult to read.
Because there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, treatments focus on helping patients to manage their symptoms. Health care providers often prescribe medicines that work by increasing dopamine in the brain to help control shaking and movement symptoms.
In addition, rehabilitation is available for people with Parkinson’s to help alleviate symptoms and compensate for some of the physical and neurological problems caused by the disease. Specifically, therapy can address:
- Muscle and joint stiffness, pain and weakness
- Balance problems
- Lack of coordination
- Trouble walking
- Speech and voice problems
Scripps Clinic, in partnership with The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), has started a clinical trial using induced pluripotent stem cells to halt or reverse the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
Under the leadership of Dr. Houser and co-investigator Jeanne F. Loring, PhD, professor and director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at TSRI, skin cells taken from Parkinson’s disease patients who meet select criteria have been cultivated in vitro and turned into pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells have been developed into dopamine-producing brain cells.
The plans, which will require Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, are to implant these cells back into the donor patients’ brains; the goal is for the cells to integrate inside the brain and produce enough dopamine to alleviate the worst symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. There are currently several clinical trials using pluripotent stem cells to replace cells lost to injury or neurodegenerative disease, as well as for the development of pharmaceuticals, but reimplantation of cells into the same patient for function restoration as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease has never been attempted.