Caption: Nick's father, a Parkinson's patient, engages in one of his favorite pastimes, surfing.
“Come look at this,” my dad called, hopping off of his bike and walking inside. He shrugged. “See how my left shoulder goes up higher than the right? Weird isn’t it?” I examined it for a second. “Huh, guess that is pretty weird,” I replied. We both chuckled, assuming that his shoulder would soon return to normal. Yet as time went by, my dad’s strange symptoms continued. His right side was less responsive than it had once been, and he harnessed a slight tremor whenever he was nervous. When I was around ten, we figured out that it was more serious than we had imagined. His doctor told him that he had Parkinson’s disease, news that around 60,000 other Americans receive every year. After acquiring the disease at 52, it slowly forced him to stop doing the things he loved most, making it nearly impossible for him to pursue his passion of surfing just two years after his diagnosis.
People with Parkinson's have abnormally low dopamine levels due to their lack of Dopamine-generating cells in the substantia nigra part of the brain. Although commonly tossed around and mentioned in ordinary conversation, this chemical is something the public frequently misunderstands. Thus, what is dopamine? Dopamine is a chemical involved in relaying messages to the part of the brain that controls coordination and movement. In short, this hormone is critical. Still, despite constant effort, even the greatest experts on Parkinson’s disease aren’t able to pinpoint the exact reasons for the death of the cells that generate Dopamine. Nonetheless, as a result of a decrease in dopamine cells, people with Parkinson’s have trouble controlling their movements, making it hard for them to execute simple, everyday tasks. In fact, Dopamine levels progressively drop in all patients with the disease, so their symptoms gradually become much more severe.
According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, “at least one million people in the United States, and more than five million worldwide, have Parkinson's disease.” Like my dad’s condition, these people’s diseases slowly progress from slight tremors to overwhelming incapacitation, precluding victims from being unable to walk without assistance.
About six years after my dad was diagnosed, he received Deep Brain Stimulation; a device was implanted in his brain in order to assist with his muscle movement.
In this procedure, electrodes are inserted into the patient’s brain and connected to a device that sends pulses, using a neuro-stimulator that works in a similar way as a pacemaker. These electrodes are planted on the left and right sides of the brain through small incisions made at the top of the skull, and connected by wires that pass under the skin and down the neck. They attach to a battery-powered stimulator under the skin of the chest. When turned on, the stimulator sends electrical waves to block the faulty nerve signals responsible for several Parkinson’s symptoms.
The procedure has decreased my father’s tremor, slowness of movement, stiffness, and walking problems, and does the same for others with Parkinson’s disease. As a result, my dad, (although he is nowhere near his previous physical state) has been able to do many of the things he once loved, such as surfing, biking, and running. He can do all of these while also decreasing the amounts of Levodopa (Parkinson’s medication) he takes.
Although Deep Brain Stimulation has proven to be successful in bettering the lives of people with Parkinson’s, it does not cure those with the disease, or stop the disease’s progression; it simply masks some of the symptoms. In reality, my dad and other DBS patients are still required to take medication, which results in serious side effects, such as sleep loss, extreme stress, and major speaking issues. My father’s life, and the lives of others with Parkinson’s, are still frustrating in everyday struggles, especially as their diseases worsens with time.
One promising field of research for the future of Parkinson’s disease is known as Stem Cell Therapy. Stem cells, or renewable sources of tissue, can be manipulated in order to become different types of cells throughout the body. They are able to help with maintenance and reparation of lost cells in the brain due to Parkinson’s, as they can “morph” into specialized cells of the tissues they need to repair. The most common (and best known) types of cells are embryonic stem cells, referred to a such because they can be found within an early-stage embryo.
In recent research, these types of cells have also been drawn from various tissues, including adult bone marrow, heart, gut, and even the brain itself. Along with embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent cells (man made stem cells) have shown to serve the same purpose in those with Parkinson’s. Both of these kinds of cells have proven to be extremely promising for the future of Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. Yet, the FDA approval process is an extremely extensive and expensive one; a substantial amount of money is needed in order to begin to approve human stem cell use. With the help from donors, Stem Cell Therapy is something that could prove to be a promising stem in the race to cure neurodegenerative diseases. If we can get various stem cells past the FDA approval process, my dad, and all of those with Parkinson’s disease would be able to regain their strength, speech, and intelligence, ensuring that they would be able to live the healthy lives that they were meant to live.
Image Source: David Wang
About the Author: Nick Van Huizum
Nick is a member of the class of 2018 from California.