A potentially significant new approach to the treatment of Parkinson's disease has been discovered by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
Neurologist Mahlon R. DeLong and his colleagues are reporting in today's edition of the journal Science that destroying a small number of cells in a particular region of the brain of monkeys produces "dramatic and immediate" improvement in the animals' conditions. Monkeys that had Parkinson's symptoms of uncontrollable tremors stopped shaking and were able to use their limbs within one minute after the treatment.
"We were frankly surprised by the extent of the improvement," says DeLong, who is now at Emory University in Atlanta.
The discovery is based on evidence suggesting that cells in the region, called the subthalamic nucleus, become over-excited in victims of Parkinson's, producing the tremors and rigidity that are characteristic of the disease.
The research in monkeys suggests that it might be possible to make dramatic improvements in the conditions of human patients either by destroying the cells in surgery or by developing new drugs that would inhibit those cells without affecting others in the brain.
Although DeLong has had many patients who have volunteered for the surgery, he says, "I would not want to encourage patients or surgeons that this is the thing to do now. It is simply too early to take that jump."
But neurologist Donald Calne of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver says, "Given the current state of knowledge, there would be every justification for a very careful, limited clinical study of [the technique in humans] based on Dr. DeLong's findings."
Parkinson's disease affects at least 500,000 Americans, and perhaps as many as 1 million, most of them over the age of 55.