2017 marks 200 years since James Parkinson, an English apothecary, surgeon, geologist and sometime political activist, published a paper that defined his legacy. An Essay on the Shaking Palsy described a syndrome that caused wide-ranging problems that affected how people move, feel, speak, think and even look. This constellation of symptoms was probably as old as the human race, but Parkinson was the first to scientifically characterize it. Today we know it as his disease.
It’s estimated that five million people worldwide are currently living with Parkinson’s disease, or PD, which we now know kills the neurons that produce dopamine (a critical chemical in brain function) among other changes in the brain. Most people get it around age 60, though it is also seen in people as young as their 20s. The disease is progressive, meaning that it gets inexorably worse over time, and many live with it for decades. Estimated prevalence numbers are likely on the low side because PD is frequently misdiagnosed and can lead to isolation and social withdrawal.
It’s interesting to imagine what Dr. Parkinson would think about what two centuries of scientific exploration have done to bring us closer to a cure for PD.
On one hand, he’d be amazed by the research breakthrough that led to the 1967 discovery of levodopa, which 50 years later remains the “gold standard” Parkinson’s treatment. On the other, he’d likely be surprised to learn that doctors continue to diagnose PD much in the same way he did in his day: there is no objective test or biomarker to predict, prevent or diagnose Parkinson’s, nor to conclusively track its progression over time. Make no mistake—we’ve made tremendous progress toward our goal, but we are realistic about the work that remains ahead of us.
As we mark Parkinson’s Awareness month, 200 years after James Parkinson started the clock on scientific inquiry into PD, I want every Parkinson’s family to know they play an extremely vital…