Parkinson’s disease (PD) affects an estimated 1.5 million Americans and about 2% of people over 65 in the U.K. Its prevalence increases with age, although roughly 15% of Americans with Parkinson’s disease are 50 or younger. Parkinson’s disease is part of a broader spectrum of disorders known as parkinsonism. While it was viewed as fairly homogeneous in the past, researchers and clinicians now recognize the complexity of the disease and its related diseases.
The defining neurological marker of Parkinson’s disease is the destruction of the substantia nigra pars compacta, a small nucleus in the brain that is one of the major dopamine-producing brain areas. Symptoms of PD are not evident until around 80% of the neurons in the substantia nigra (literally translated as “black substance”) are destroyed. Because the substantia nigra produces dopamine, which is an important neurotransmitter, the depletion of dopamine in the brain that is associated with PD affects the striatum, which in part suppresses the subthalamic nucleus. This in turn results in more activity in the globus pallidus and substantia nigra pars reticulata, which in the end leads to more activation of the inhibitory thalamic nuclei that are involved in motor functioning. To summarize, decreased dopamine results in decreased motor activation as well as other motor problems.
The common features of Parkinson’s disease are easily remembered by the mnemonic TRAP.
- T – Tremor, specifically resting tremor. Tremor that occurs when moving (e.g., reaching for an object) is called essential tremor and is not a defining characteristic of PD; in fact, it is a different but related disorder.
- R – Rigidity. Difficulty moving and stiff arms and limbs.
- A – Akinesia. No or slow movements.
- P – Postural instability. Posture problems.
Gait abnormalities is also one of the common features of PD. It is especially useful for detecting the disease early in the process. The common gait problems are decrease height and length of step and less arm swing (i.e., walking more with a shuffle than a normal gait). People with PD also often take very small steps when turning around.
PD patients often have difficulty swallowing saliva so they often drool. They also often have micrography (very small writing) that progressively gets smaller with prolonged writing. Depression is common in PD patients as well. If given levodopa (L-dopa) they will respond. Symptoms of dementia often occur as well but they usually occur after a few years post diagnosis. However, there are often more mild cognitive changes early on in the disease process, such as slowed processing speed and slowed reaction time.
Approach to diagnosis of Parkinson disease (C. Frank, G. Pari, & J. P. Rossiter, 2006). Canadian Family Physician, 52, 862-868.