Parkinson’s disease is a complex disorder that causes problems with movement, as well as psychiatric, skin, urinary, and digestive problems in its later stages.
Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, meaning that it gets worse over time. People who suffer from Parkinson’s initially experience a range of symptoms including tremors, body stiffness, slowness of movement, and impaired balance. At first, these symptoms may be annoying, but pose no impediment to independent living. Eventually, however, symptoms become severe enough to necessitate round-the-clock care for those affected. Although there are many comfort measures that can improve the quality of life for its sufferers, there is no cure for Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s is a disease of the nervous system, caused by dysfunction in the part of the brain that controls movement. Although most of us take voluntary movement for granted, and can perform a physical task as quickly as we can think about it—scratching our nose, picking up a glass of water, getting up from a chair—for people with Parkinson’s disease, the normal interaction between the parts of the brain that control movement and the rest of the body is interrupted. Ordinarily, when someone initiates movement, a complex interaction between sensory input and parts of the brain responsible for planning and decision-making occurs, and signals are sent to other brain regions responsible for coordination and balance. These signals in turn are transmitted to the cerebellum, the region of the brain responsible for muscle movement, and eventually through the spinal cord to the rest of the body.
The signals that travel through the brain and body must somehow be carried from one place to another: this is accomplished by chemicals called neurotransmitters. These molecules are produced by neurons, highly specialized cells that gather in densely packed nodules on the tips of nerve fibers throughout the brain and nervous system. Neurotransmitters pass between gaps in the neurons, called synapses, and attach to proteins known as receptors on nearby cells. The signal for “movement” is thus passed between neurons until it reaches a receptor site in a muscle, causing the muscle to contract, thereby causing movement. In Parkinson’s disease, this complex interaction between the brain and the rest of the body is interrupted.
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