Parkinson’s Disease: Robin Williams’ Death In Retrospect

Parkinson’s disease and its symptoms are by no means new illnesses.  More than one million Americans live with Parkinson’s disease. This number is more than the combined number of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease yearly. This number does not reflect the thousands of cases that go undetected. An estimated 7 million to 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is caused by the loss of dopamine-producing neurons. This loss results in symptoms that include body rigidity and tremors. Symptoms are initially less pronounced but become more prominent as the disease progresses. Patients at the later stages suffer from a multitude of symptoms, including difficulty in sleeping or performing simple tasks (walking, talking, chewing, etc.), skin problems, constipation and also often suffer from depression.

The disease gained much of its attention from famous people, most notably actor Michael J. Fox, boxer Muhammad Ali, and singer Johnny Cash.

While the shocking news of iconic comedian Robin Williams’ death is still fresh in the minds and hearts of the people, with memorials and acts of remembrance taking place across the U.S. and other parts of the world, it was Williams’ wife Susan Schneider who revealed the personal battle the world-class comedian was facing: Parkinson’s disease.

Williams’ death has also shed light on the link between Parkinson’s disease and depression. According to Dr. Prashant Gajwani, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas at Houston, “What people need to understand is that depression and Parkinson’s disease both affect the brain.”

Dr. Gajwani further added, “There’s certain neurochemicals that are involved in both the diseases that have shared common pathways such as serotonin and dopamine. So, what happens is people who get Parkinson’s disease are at a higher risk for getting depressed.”

Neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s are complex diseases and the use of biomarkers will help elucidate relevant mechanisms that cause the disease and are responsible for disease progression. In the case of Parkinson’s, scientists believe that there may be a number of biological factors responsible for the disease, including changes in the mitochondria, oxidative stress, excitotoxicity or trophic factors.

Parkinson’s disease has become focused on biomarkers both from the standpoint of diagnostic test development to that of surrogates to assess the effectiveness of drugs to monitoring the progression of the disease or positive response to treatment scheme. Research into this area had been funded by the NIA, NINDS and the Parkinson’s Foundation, and by private foundations such as the Michael J. Fox Foundation.


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