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Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive condition that primarily affects a person's movement. Symptoms begin when nerve cells in the brain stop working properly, and die. The most affected cells can be those deep in the brain, responsible for making the chemical dopamine, a messenger necessary for smooth, controlled movements.

There is no definitive test for Parkinson's disease, so it is important to get a diagnosis from a specialist Doctor. A diagnosis will be based on the presence of the following symptoms related to movement:

  • Bradykinesia, or slowness of movement. This is the most important problem of Parkinson’s disease and a diagnosis can’t be made without it being present
  • Rigidity, or stiffness of the limbs and trunk
  • The ability to maintain posture and balance may be affected, which may cause falls
  • Tremor (shaking, trembling), when the hand is at rest. This is a very obvious problem but it is not always present and may restrict a person's ability to conduct some simple tasks
  • Dyskinesia or abnormal involuntary movement. While not strictly a feature of Parkinson’s disease, it is a common and disabling feature associated with treatment.

While symptoms relating to movement are the most obvious, there are a number of other related symptoms a person may experience. They can include

  • Dementia in the form of difficulty in judgement and planning, or increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Hallucinations and psychosis
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Difficulty in swallowing, chewing and speaking
  • Constipation and problems with bladder function
  • Episodes of low blood pressure
  • Disturbed temperature regulation.

In the first few years, issues with movement will be the primary concern. Initially these can be easily treated with medications. Over time complications and difficulties with treatment may lead to the need for more complex treatments.Eventually issues with thinking, falls and continence can become more prominent.

  • Men are 1.5 times more likely to have Parkinson's than women

  • It is estimated more than 110,000 people live with Parkinson's

  • On average, 32 new cases are diagnosed every day

Causes and treatment

There is no known cause of Parkinson's. It is thought that genetics and environmental factors such as chemical exposure or head injury could both play a part.

Through research, our understanding of the possible causes of Parkinson’s is increasing all the time. Areas of current research include: ageing, genes, environmental factors, chemical exposure and virus-like structures called prions.

At present there are no treatments that slow the progression of Parkinson's, although there are a number of therapies that can alleviate movement problems. Most of these are directed at restoring dopamine levels in the brain. However, they can cause side effects such as involuntary movement, impulsive behaviour, anxiety and mood disturbance. This may lead to the prescription of advanced therapies, including deep brain stimulation and continuous drug infusions.

Every person with Parkinson's will require an individual treatment plan. As the disease progresses, this plan will be reviewed and modified. Treatment for symptoms that aren't movement related can include mood stabilisers and anti- depressants, as well as the involvement of dieticians, speech pathologists, psychologists and specialist care.

How the Florey is making a difference

The Institute has a number of research projects in its laboratories underway, for example:

  • Scientists looking for the cause of Parkinson’s disease continue to search for possible factors that may trigger the disorder, and study genetic factors to determine how genes could play a role
  • Other scientists are working on developing new protective drugs that can delay, prevent, or reverse the disease
  • Trialling improved methods of diagnosis and treatment monitoring

Clinical trials

People with Parkinson’s disease are required for a National Research Project. This research project is to establish whether objective measurements aids in improved clinical care and leads to improved control of Parkinson’s and wellbeing.

Support and information

For further information and support, please contact Parkinsons Victoria on 1800 644 189.

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