Symptoms of Parkinson's

The research performed at Struthers Parkinson's Center not only helps patients and families in the Midwest live better with Parkinson's disease, it also helps patients and families around the world. One way we do this is through dedicated research. Our efforts have helped the center earn the distinction of "Center of Excellence" from the National Parkinson Foundation. Only 31 centers worldwide carry this distinction.

Researchers at the center are involved in a variety of studies: analyzing why people with Parkinson's fall; participating in multicenter, experimental drug trials; studying the effects of nutritional supplements; and trying to determine the root cause of the disease. Here's a closer look at these studies and how their results may improve the physical health and quality of life of those affected by Parkinson's.

Why analyze falls?

"About 50 percent of all people with Parkinson's have a tendency to fall, which can lead to serious injuries," says Catherine Wielinski, masters of public health, research director at Struthers Parkinson's Center. People sometimes become socially isolated as their fear of falling prevents them from going out in public.

The center is working with hundreds of patients, asking them to track their falls and near falls over a four-week period. "When we know what causes people to fall, we can develop more focused strategies for preventing them or minimizing their impact," Wielinski explains. Here's a sampling of what causes falls in people with Parkinson's:

"Freezing" refers to the sensation of being "stuck in place" when trying to walk. People who experience freezing are prone to falling forward. "Our physical therapists can teach patients ways to break the freeze," Wielinski explains.
Dizziness occurs frequently in people with Parkinson's, especially when they first stand up from a sitting or reclining position. The team at Struthers Parkinson's Center can identify and correct the factors that can cause blood pressure to drop and cause people to become dizzy.
Perceptual deficits may cause people with Parkinson's to think they are taking normal-size steps, but, in reality, those steps are very small. Perceptual deficits can easily lead to tripping, especially when people try to step over something, but don't succeed. A review with the physical therapist and occupational therapist may minimize the risk of such falls by modifying the patient's living environment.
Spontaneous falls are those that occur for no apparent reason. "We don't fully understand the cause of spontaneous falls," Wielinski says. People who are prone to spontaneous falls may be encouraged to use assistive devices, such as walkers or wheelchairs.

Center involved in worldwide experimental drug trials

Struthers Parkinson's Center also is involved in several multicenter drug trials sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the pharmaceutical industry. In one study, the center is looking at new medications to see if they can extend the effectiveness of Levodopa, the main medication used for treating Parkinson's disease. "When people are on Levodopa for a number of years, the drug's benefit may last for a shorter time or people may develop an unpredictable response to it," explains Sotirios Parashos, MD, PhD, a neurologist and research chair at the center.

In other drug trials, the center is researching medications that treat symptoms of the disease; medications that treat complications from having the disease for many years; and medications that may slow its progression.

Studies aim to prevent nerve damage, identify cause

Although the exact cause of Parkinson's remains unknown, researchers do know that symptoms of Parkinson's result when certain nerve cells in the brain die or become impaired. These nerves produce the chemical dopamine, which allows for smooth, coordinated muscle movement. Researchers are trying to determine whether the nutritional supplement, Creatine, may protect these nerve cells, thereby slowing the progression of the disease. The center is one of 42 worldwide participating in this study.

Researchers now believe genetics and environmental conditions combine to trigger the disease. The center is participating in a number of multicenter and national trials to collect genetic material from patients with Parkinson's and identify potential risk factors. By identifying genetic predispositions for the disease and the exact environmental triggers, researchers can take steps to prevent the disease in those who are susceptible.

Working to alleviate advanced Parkinson's symptoms

The center also is studying advanced symptoms of Parkinson's. "In time, about a third of all people with the disease develop dementia or psychiatric problems, such as anxiety or depression. Sometime they have hallucinations," Dr. Parashos explains. "These advanced symptoms can become more debilitating than the motor impairments, and sometimes require people to move into long-term care facilities. We are trying to identify those who may be at risk for these symptoms so we can develop intervention and prevention strategies.

"Research requires lots of time, money and willing participants," Dr. Parashos adds. "We are very grateful when people volunteer to participate in our studies or want to give donations for research."