Parkinson’s Disease Treatments Progress, Thanks to Michael J. Fox’s Activism

Parkinson’s disease treatments progress, thanks to Michael J. Fox’s activism

When he first noticed his little finger shaking, Michael J. Fox put it down to a hangover. A year later — at just 30 years old — he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

The Canadian-American teen idol of the 1980s, famous for his roles in the smash hit trilogy Back to the Future underwent a 360-degree turnaround. From being a movie star for five years and feeling “lucky” he was suddenly “peculiar.” Sure, he was used to being stared at, but this time, it was different. “I hated the way it (Parkinson’s) made me look,” he thought. “That means that I hated me.”

But Fox has come a long way from feeling down in the dumps since he was first diagnosed with neurodegenerative disease in 1991. Starting with a public disclosure in 1998, he then went on to become an activist for research toward finding a cure. This led him to create the Michael J. Fox Foundation — today, the leading Parkinson’s fundraiser in the United States that has been able to put US$140 million into research in the last eight years alone. On March 5, 2010, Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet gave him a honoris causa doctorate for his work in advocating for a Parkinson’s cure .

But 21 years after diagnosis — and despite his overwhelming optimism — every day is still a challenge. Even just how exactly his medications will work still surprises him: if the drugs don’t take effect, he becomes “akinetic”– seized by tremors and stiffness. If the medication is working all right but coincides with a natural surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine, he becomes “dyskinesic” — “rocking, dipping, diving.”

To illustrate the terrible effects of the disease, Fox once appeared unmedicated before Congress. He describes how he looked “as if an invisible bully were harassing me as I read my statement.”

Parkinson’s is suffering
Parkinson’s doesn’t involve a lot of physical pain — but still it’s a terrible disease. First off, it involves a lot of mental pain.

Beginning with motion problems in walking or talking, the disease is marked by trembling arms and legs, muscular rigidity and poor balance. Parkinson’s patients have difficulty sleeping at night — then feel drowsy during the daytime.

The disease worsens over time, and a third of sufferers go on to develop dementia — failing memory, short attention span and personality changes. The remainder who don’t, still suffer from a slowing down of information processing that makes it hard to complete simple mental tasks.

If that’s not enough, half of all people who suffer from Parkinson’s also endure clinical depression, anxiety and panic attacks — sudden, overpowering fears that come like storms together with breathlessness, sweating, chest pain, choking and dizziness.

Drugs can be used to alleviate the most troubling symptoms of Parkinson’s, but until today, there’s still no cure. That means that right now, nothing can stop the disease’s awful advance. That’s even when it’s the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease.

About 7.5 people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s — 1.7 million in China, one million in the U.S., about 100,000 in Canada and 1.2 million Europeans. A chronic, progressive neurological disorder, it affects one in 100 people over the age 60 — but can affect people as young as 18.

Scientists believe that the death of cells in the substantia nigra — a structure in the brain’s mid region in charge of reward, addiction and movement — is what causes a shortage of dopamine that in turn causes Parkinson’s. Dopamine is a brain chemical involved in mood, sleep, memory and movement. How exactly these changes happen isn’t precisely known, but scientists think a combination of aging, genetic susceptibility and environmental factors lead to the development of the disease.