When you think of Parkinson’s disease, you might think of some of the high profile people who have been diagnosed with the disease. Michael J Fox. Muhammad Ali. Billy Connolly.
Did you know that each year, 11,500 Australians are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and it is estimated that around 70,000 Australians are currently living with it? While the average age of diagnosis is 65 years, younger people are not immune.
So, what is Parkinson’s disease, and what is being done to find better ways to diagnose, treat and ultimately cure it? We asked Associate Professor Antony Cooper, Head of Neuroscience at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative condition of the central nervous system. Indicators of the disease can include motor symptoms (tremor, rigidity and impaired movement) and non-motor symptoms (problems sleeping, loss of sense of smell, speech and swallowing problems, cognitive impairment, depression and anxiety).
Unfortunately, we do not know what causes Parkinson’s, or its progression. This is the major obstacle to finding better ways of treating the disease and ultimately curing it.
The physical symptoms of Parkinson’s disease result from the progressive degeneration of neurons or brain cells. A current hypothesis is that disease progression involves the spread of the toxic protein called alpha-synuclein within the brain, causing cells to degenerate. As more and more parts of the brain are affected, people living with Parkinson’s experience a growing range of symptoms. Existing therapies, such as those that increase dopamine levels, only treat specific symptoms and do not halt disease progression.
Research currently being conducted at the Garvan Institute has two main aims. To discover the cause of Parkinson’s, which will inform how we identify and develop new therapies; and to identify biomarkers (biological indicators of a disease)that will allow for early diagnosis and treatment of the disease years before symptoms start.
My ultimate goal for our research is this – to use biomarkers to diagnose individuals in the very early stages of Parkinson’s (before symptoms appear), and then treat the patient with new therapies early enough so that the progression of the disease never advances to produce symptoms. In other words, the disease would essentially be cured.
If you would like additional information about Parkinson’s disease research at the Garvan Institute, visit www.garvan.org.au
¹Make Parkinson’s a Priority: Action Framework. Parkinson’s Australia. 2015.