Over 1 million Americans suffer from Parkinson's disease (PD). More than 60,000 patients are newly diagnosed each year. Although PD typically strikes individuals at about 60 years of age, in some cases PD begins earlier in life.
The first sign of PD is usually subtle fatigue, discomfort, or shakiness. With advancing disease, memory lapses, depression and a "masked" or expressionless face become common. Additional symptoms include trembling, stiff/sore muscles, loss of spontaneous movement, difficulty swallowing and impaired coordination. PD is caused by a loss of brain cells (neurons) in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. Normally, these neurons produce "dopamine," an essential chemical messenger in the brain. Once damaged, these neurons stop producing dopamine and compromise the brain's ability to control movement.
There is no way to prevent or cure PD. The most widely used drug — levodopa — allows neurons to make new dopamine. However, the drug may cause side effects and over time loses effectiveness.
But we're making progress. Examples of the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center's initiatives to fight against PD include:
Biomarker Discovery. A "biomarker" is a surrogate "marker" of disease. For example, "cholesterol" is a blood-based biomarker to assess risk of heart disease. Biomarkers may help diagnose disease as well as monitor disease progression and response to treatment. Good biomarkers will help us detect and monitor PD, as well as assess the effectiveness of emerging treatments. The Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center Biomarker Discovery Program enables researchers to discover and validate PD biomarkers. For a description of the Center's important Biomarkers Discovery program, click here.
Understanding the disease. Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center scientists are working to identify genetic and environmental factors that may trigger PD. Such understanding is crucial to the development of patient treatments that target the causes of disease.
In addition to the Biomarker Program, the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center plays a critical role funding several programs that will be instrumental in finding a treatment for Parkinson’s disease: the NeuroBehavior Laboratory, the Advanced Tissue Resource Core and pilot grant programs which enable investigators to perform novel research in PD that would not otherwise be funded.
The Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center is dedicated to accelerating the discovery of effective treatments and cures for Parkinson's disease. For information about how to support our approach, click here. For information about coping with Parkinson's disease, the Parkinson’s disease foundation website is a very good place to start: Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.