Parkinson’s Disease

Definition of Parkinson’s Disease  

Parkinson’s disease (also known as Parkinson disease, Parkinson’s, idiopathic parkinsonism, primary parkinsonism, PD, hypokinetic rigid syndrome/HRS, or paralysis agitans) is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. The motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease result from the death of dopamine-generating cells in the substantia nigra, a region of the midbrain; the cause of this cell death is unknown. Early in the course of the disease, the most obvious symptoms are movement-related; these include shaking, rigidity, slowness of movement and difficulty with walking and gait. Later, cognitive and behavioural problems may arise, with dementia commonly occurring in the advanced stages of the disease. Other symptoms include sensory, sleep and emotional problems. PD is more common in the elderly, with most cases occurring after the age of 50.

The main motor symptoms are collectively called parkinsonism, or a “parkinsonian syndrome”. Parkinson’s disease is often defined as a parkinsonian syndrome that is idiopathic (having no known cause), although some atypical cases have a genetic origin. Many risk and protective factors have been investigated: the clearest evidence is for an increased risk of PD in people exposed to certain pesticides and a reduced risk in tobacco smokers. The pathology of the disease is characterized by the accumulation of a protein called alpha-synuclein into inclusions called Lewy bodies in neurons, and from insufficient formation and activity of dopamine produced in certain neurons within parts of the midbrain. Lewy bodies are the pathological hallmark of the idiopathic disorder, and the distribution of the Lewy bodies throughout the Parkinsonian brain varies from one individual to another. The anatomical distribution of the Lewy bodies is often directly related to the expression and degree of the clinical symptoms of each individual. Diagnosis of typical cases is mainly based on symptoms, with tests such as neuroimaging being used for confirmation.

Modern treatments are effective at managing the early motor symptoms of the disease, mainly through the use of levodopa and dopamine agonists. As the disease progresses and dopaminergic neurons continue to be lost, these drugs eventually become ineffective at treating the symptoms and at the same time produce a complication called dyskinesia, marked by involuntary writhing movements. Diet and some forms of rehabilitation have shown some effectiveness at alleviating symptoms. Surgery and deep brain stimulation have been used to reduce motor symptoms as a last resort in severe cases where drugs are ineffective. Research directions include investigations into new animal models of the disease and of the potential usefulness of gene therapy, stem cell transplants and neuroprotective agents. Medications to treat non-movement-related symptoms of PD, such as sleep disturbances and emotional problems, also exist.

Cause of Parkinson’s Disease 

Parkinson’s disease in most people is idiopathic, (having no specific known cause). However a small proportion of cases, can be attributed to known genetic factors. Other factors have been associated with the risk of developing PD, but no causal relationships have been proven.

Environmental factors

A number of environmental factors have been associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s including: pesticide exposure, head injuries, and living in the country or farming. Rural environments and the drinking of well water may be risks as they are an indirect measures of exposure to pesticides.
Implicated agents include insecticides, primarily chlorpyrifos and organochlorines and pesticides, such as rotenone or paraquat, and herbicides, such as Agent Orange. Heavy metals exposure has been proposed to be a risk factor, through possible accumulation in the substantia nigra; however, studies on the issue have been inconclusive.


PD traditionally has been considered a non-genetic disorder; however, around 15% of individuals with PD have a first-degree relative who has the disease. At least 5% of people are now known to have forms of the disease that occur because of a mutation of one of several specific genes.

Mutations in specific genes have been conclusively shown to cause PD. These genes code for alpha-synuclein (SNCA), parkin (PRKN), leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2 or dardarin), PTEN-induced putative kinase 1 (PINK1), DJ-1 and ATP13A2. In most cases, people with these mutations will develop PD. With the exception of LRRK2, however, they account for only a small minority of cases of PD. The most extensively studied PD-related genes are SNCA and LRRK2. Mutations in genes including SNCA, LRRK2 and glucocerebrosidase (GBA) have been found to be risk factors for sporadic PD. Mutations in GBA are known to cause Gaucher’s disease. Genome-wide association studies, which search for mutated alleles with low penetrance in sporadic cases, have now yielded many positive results.

The role of the SNCA gene is important in PD because the alpha-synuclein protein is the main component of Lewy bodies. Missense mutations of the gene (in which a single nucleotide is changed), and duplications and triplications of the locus containing it have been found in different groups with familial PD. Missense mutations are rare. On the other hand, multiplications of the SNCA locus account for around 2% of familial cases. Multiplications have been found in asymptomatic carriers, which indicate that penetrance is incomplete or age-dependent.

The LRRK2 gene (PARK8) encodes for a protein called dardarin. The name dardarin was taken from a Basque word for tremor, because this gene was first identified in families from England and the north of Spain. Mutations in LRRK2 are the most common known cause of familial and sporadic PD, accounting for approximately 5% of individuals with a family history of the disease and 3% of sporadic cases. There are many different mutations described in LRRK2, however unequivocal proof of causation only exists for a small number.

Signs and Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease affects movement, producing motor symptoms. Non-motor symptoms, which include autonomic dysfunction, neuropsychiatric problems (mood, cognition, behavior or thought alterations), and sensory and sleep difficulties, are also common. Some of these non-motor symptoms are often present at the time of diagnosis and can precede motor symptoms.


Four motor symptoms are considered cardinal in PD: tremor, rigidity, slowness of movement, and postural instability.

Tremor is the most apparent and well-known symptom. It is the most common; though around 30% of individuals with PD do not have tremor at disease onset, most develop it as the disease progresses. It is usually a rest tremor: maximal when the limb is at rest and disappearing with voluntary movement and sleep. It affects to a greater extent the most distal part of the limb and at onset typically appears in only a single arm or leg, becoming bilateral later. Frequency of PD tremor is between 4 and 6 hertz (cycles per second). A feature of tremor is pill-rolling, the tendency of the index finger of the hand to get into contact with the thumb and perform together a circular movement. The term derives from the similarity between the movement in people with PD and the earlier pharmaceutical technique of manually making pills.

Bradykinesia (slowness of movement) is another characteristic feature of PD, and is associated with difficulties along the whole course of the movement process, from planning to initiation and finally execution of a movement. Performance of sequential and simultaneous movement is hindered. Bradykinesia is commonly a very disabling symptom in the early stages of the disease.Initial manifestations are problems when performing daily tasks which require fine motor control such as writing, sewing or getting dressed. Clinical evaluation is based in similar tasks such as alternating movements between both hands or both feet. Bradykinesia is not equal for all movements or times. It is modified by the activity or emotional state of the subject, to the point that some people are barely able to walk yet can still ride a bicycle. Generally people with PD have less difficulty when some sort of external cue is provided.

Rigidity is stiffness and resistance to limb movement caused by increased muscle tone, an excessive and continuous contraction of muscles. In parkinsonism the rigidity can be uniform (lead-pipe rigidity) or ratchety (cogwheel rigidity). The combination of tremor and increased tone is considered to be at the origin of cogwheel rigidity. Rigidity may be associated with joint pain; such pain being a frequent initial manifestation of the disease. In early stages of Parkinson’s disease, rigidity is often asymmetrical and it tends to affect the neck and shoulder muscles prior to the muscles of the face and extremities. With the progression of the disease, rigidity typically affects the whole body and reduces the ability to move.

Postural instability is typical in the late stages of the disease, leading to impaired balance and frequent falls, and secondarily to bone fractures. Instability is often absent in the initial stages, especially in younger people. Up to 40% may experience falls and around 10% may have falls weekly, with number of falls being related to the severity of PD.

Other recognized motor signs and symptoms include gait and posture disturbances such as festination (rapid shuffling steps and a forward-flexed posture when walking), speech and swallowing disturbances including voice disorders, mask-like face expression or small handwriting, although the range of possible motor problems that can appear is large.


Parkinson’s disease can cause neuropsychiatric disturbances which can range from mild to severe. This includes disorders of speech, cognition, mood, behaviour, and thought.

Cognitive disturbances can occur in the initial stages of the disease and sometimes prior to diagnosis, and increase in prevalence with duration of the disease. The most common cognitive deficit in affected individuals is executive dysfunction, which can include problems with planning, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, initiating appropriate actions and inhibiting inappropriate actions, and selecting relevant sensory information. Fluctuations in attention and slowed cognitive speed are among other cognitive difficulties. Memory is affected, specifically in recalling learned information. Nevertheless, improvement appears when recall is aided by cues. Visuospatial difficulties are also part of the disease, seen for example when the individual is asked to perform tests of facial recognition and perception of the orientation of drawn lines.

A person with PD has two to six times the risk of dementia compared to the general population. The prevalence of dementia increases with duration of the disease. Dementia is associated with a reduced quality of life in people with PD and their caregivers, increased mortality, and a higher probability of needing nursing home care.

Behavior and mood alterations are more common in PD without cognitive impairment than in the general population, and are usually present in PD with dementia. The most frequent mood difficulties are depression, apathy and anxiety. Establishing the diagnosis of depression is complicated by symptoms that often occur in Parkinson’s including dementia, decreased facial expression, decreased movement, a state of indifference, and quiet speech. Impulse control behaviors such as medication overuse and craving, binge eating, hypersexuality, or pathological gambling can appear in PD and have been related to the medications used to manage the disease. Psychotic symptoms—hallucinations or delusions—occur in 4% of people with PD, and it is assumed that the main precipitant of psychotic phenomena in Parkinson’s disease is dopaminergic excess secondary to treatment; it therefore becomes more common with increasing age and levodopa intake.


In addition to cognitive and motor symptoms, PD can impair other body functions. Sleep problems are a feature of the disease and can be worsened by medications. Symptoms can manifest as daytime drowsiness, disturbances in REM sleep, or insomnia. Alterations in the autonomic nervous system can lead to orthostatic hypotension (low blood pressure upon standing), oily skin and excessive sweating, urinary incontinence and altered sexual function. Constipation and gastric dysmotility can be severe enough to cause discomfort and even endanger health. PD is related to several eye and vision abnormalities such as decreased blink rate, dry eyes, deficient ocular pursuit (eye tracking) and saccadic movements (fast automatic movements of both eyes in the same direction), difficulties in directing gaze upward, and blurred or double vision. Changes in perception may include an impaired sense of smell, sensation of pain and paresthesia (skin tingling and numbness). All of these symptoms can occur years before diagnosis of the disease.

Risk Factors for Parkinson’s Disease

Exposure to some environmental toxins may increase the risk of having PD. Exposure to toxins that have been consistently related to the disease can double the risk of PD, and include certain pesticides, such as rotenone or paraquat, and herbicides, such as Agent Orange. Rural environments and the drinking of well water may be risks as they are an indirect measures of exposure to pesticides. Heavy metals exposure has been proposed to be a risk factor, through possible accumulation in the substantia nigra; however, studies on the issue have been inconclusive.

PD traditionally has been considered a non-genetic disorder; however, around 15% of individuals with PD have a first-degree relative who has the disease. At least 5% of people are now known to have forms of the disease that occur because of a mutation of one of several specific genes.

Diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease

A physician will diagnose Parkinson’s disease from the medical history and a neurological examination. There is no lab test that will clearly identify the disease, but brain scans are sometimes used to rule out disorders that could give rise to similar symptoms. People may be given levodopa and resulting relief of motor impairment tends to confirm diagnosis. The finding of Lewy bodies in the midbrain on autopsy is usually considered proof that the person had Parkinson’s disease. The progress of the illness over time may reveal it is not Parkinson’s disease, and some authorities recommend that the diagnosis be periodically reviewed.

Other causes that can secondarily produce a parkinsonian syndrome are Alzheimer’s disease, multiple cerebral infarction and drug-induced parkinsonism. Parkinson plus syndromes such as progressive supranuclear palsy and multiple system atrophy must be ruled out. Anti-Parkinson’s medications are typically less effective at controlling symptoms in Parkinson plus syndromes. Faster progression rates, early cognitive dysfunction or postural instability, minimal tremor or symmetry at onset may indicate a Parkinson plus disease rather than PD itself. Genetic forms are usually classified as PD, although the terms familial Parkinson’s disease and familial parkinsonism are used for disease entities with an autosomal dominant or recessive pattern of inheritance.

Medical organizations have created diagnostic criteria to ease and standardize the diagnostic process, especially in the early stages of the disease. The most widely known criteria come from the UK Parkinson’s Disease Society Brain Bank and the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The PD Society Brain Bank criteria require slowness of movement (bradykinesia) plus either rigidity, resting tremor, or postural instability. Other possible causes for these symptoms need to be ruled out. Finally, three or more of the following features are required during onset or evolution: unilateral onset, tremor at rest, progression in time, asymmetry of motor symptoms, response to levodopa for at least five years, clinical course of at least ten years and appearance of dyskinesias induced by the intake of excessive levodopa. Accuracy of diagnostic criteria evaluated at autopsy is 75–90%, with specialists such as neurologists having the highest rates.

Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of people with PD usually appear normal. These techniques are nevertheless useful to rule out other diseases that can be secondary causes of parkinsonism, such as basal ganglia tumors, vascular pathology and hydrocephalus. A specific technique of MRI, diffusion MRI, has been reported to be useful at discriminating between typical and atypical parkinsonism, although its exact diagnostic value is still under investigation. Dopaminergic function in the basal ganglia can be measured with different PET and SPECT radiotracers. Examples are ioflupane (123I) (trade name DaTSCAN) and iometopane (Dopascan) for SPECT or fluorodeoxyglucose (18F) for PET. A pattern of reduced dopaminergic activity in the basal ganglia can aid in diagnosing PD.

Prevention from Parkinson’s Disease

Caffeine consumption appears protective against Parkinson’s disease with a greater decrease in risk occurring with a larger intake of caffeinated beverages such as coffee. Although tobacco smoke decreases life expectancy and quality of life, it may reduce the risk of PD by a third when compared to non-smokers. The basis for this effect is not known, but possibilities include an effect of nicotine as a dopamine stimulant. Tobacco smoke contains compounds that act as MAO inhibitors that also might contribute to this effect.

Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and D, have been proposed to protect against the disease but results of studies have been contradictory and no positive effect has been proven. The results regarding fat and fatty acids have been contradictory, with various studies reporting protective effects, risk-increasing effects or no effects. Finally there have been preliminary indications of a possible protective role of estrogens and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease

There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, but medications, surgery and multidisciplinary management can provide relief from the symptoms. The main families of drugs useful for treating motor symptoms are levodopa (usually combined with a dopa decarboxylase inhibitor or COMT inhibitor), dopamine agonists and MAO-B inhibitors. The stage of the disease determines which group is most useful. Two stages are usually distinguished: an initial stage in which the individual with PD has already developed some disability for which he needs pharmacological treatment, then a second stage in which an individual develops motor complications related to levodopa usage. Treatment in the initial stage aims for an optimal tradeoff between good symptom control and side-effects resulting from enhancement of dopaminergic function. The start of levodopa (or L-DOPA) treatment may be delayed by using other medications such as MAO-B inhibitors and dopamine agonists, in the hope of delaying the onset of dyskinesias. In the second stage the aim is to reduce symptoms while controlling fluctuations of the response to medication. Sudden withdrawals from medication or overuse have to be managed. When medications are not enough to control symptoms, surgery and deep brain stimulation can be of use. In the final stages of the disease, palliative care is provided to enhance quality of life.


Levodopa has been the most widely used treatment for over 30 years. L-DOPA is converted into dopamine in the dopaminergic neurons by dopa decarboxylase. Since motor symptoms are produced by a lack of dopamine in the substantia nigra, the administration of L-DOPA temporarily diminishes the motor symptoms.

Dopamine Agonists

Several dopamine agonists that bind to dopaminergic post-synaptic receptors in the brain have similar effects to levodopa. These were initially used for individuals experiencing on-off fluctuations and dyskinesias as a complementary therapy to levodopa; they are now mainly used on their own as an initial therapy for motor symptoms with the aim of delaying motor complications. When used in late PD they are useful at reducing the off periods. Dopamine agonists include bromocriptine, pergolide, pramipexole, ropinirole, piribedil, cabergoline, apomorphine and lisuride.

Dopamine agonists produce significant, although usually mild, side effects including drowsiness, hallucinations, insomnia, nausea and constipation. Sometimes side effects appear even at a minimal clinically effective dose, leading the physician to search for a different drug. Compared with levodopa, dopamine agonists may delay motor complications of medication use but are less effective at controlling symptoms. Nevertheless, they are usually effective enough to manage symptoms in the initial years. They tend to be more expensive than levodopa. Dyskinesias due to dopamine agonists are rare in younger people who have PD, but along with other side effects, become more common with age at onset. Thus dopamine agonists are the preferred initial treatment for earlier onset, as opposed to levodopa in later onset. Agonists have been related to impulse control disorders (such as compulsive sexual activity and eating, and pathological gambling and shopping) even more strongly than levodopa.

Apomorphine, a non-orally administered dopamine agonist, may be used to reduce off periods and dyskinesia in late PD. It is administered by intermittent injections or continuous subcutaneous infusions. Since secondary effects such as confusion and hallucinations are common, individuals receiving apomorphine treatment should be closely monitored. Two dopamine agonists that are administered through skin patches (lisuride and rotigotine) have been recently found to be useful for patients in initial stages and preliminary positive results has been published on the control of off states in patients in the advanced state.

MAO-B İnhibitors

MAO-B inhibitors (selegiline and rasagiline) increase the level of dopamine in the basal ganglia by blocking its metabolism. They inhibit monoamine oxidase-B (MAO-B) which breaks down dopamine secreted by the dopaminergic neurons. The reduction in MAO-B activity results in increased L-DOPA in the striatum. Like dopamine agonists, MAO-B inhibitors used as monotherapy improve motor symptoms and delay the need for levodopa in early disease, but produce more adverse effects and are less effective than levodopa. There are few studies of their effectiveness in the advanced stage, although results suggest that they are useful to reduce fluctuations between on and off periods. An initial study indicated that selegiline in combination with levodopa increased the risk of death, but this was later disproven.

Other drugs

Other drugs such as amantadine and anticholinergics may be useful as treatment of motor symptoms. However, the evidence supporting them lacks quality, so they are not first choice treatments. In addition to motor symptoms, PD is accompanied by a diverse range of symptoms. A number of drugs have been used to treat some of these problems. Examples are the use of clozapine for psychosis, cholinesterase inhibitors for dementia, and modafinil for daytime sleepiness.] A 2010 meta-analysis found that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (apart from acetaminophen and aspirin), have been associated with at least a 15 percent (higher in long-term and regular users) reduction of incidence of the development of Parkinson’s disease.


Placement of an electrode into the brain. The head is stabilised in a frame for stereotactic surgery.

Treating motor symptoms with surgery was once a common practice, but since the discovery of levodopa, the number of operations declined. Studies in the past few decades have led to great improvements in surgical techniques, so that surgery is again being used in people with advanced PD for whom drug therapy is no longer sufficient. Surgery for PD can be divided in two main groups: lesional and deep brain stimulation (DBS). Target areas for DBS or lesions include the thalamus, the globus pallidus or the subthalamic nucleus. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is the most commonly used surgical treatment. It involves the implantation of a medical device called a brain pacemaker, which sends electrical impulses to specific parts of the brain. DBS is recommended for people who have PD who suffer from motor fluctuations and tremor inadequately controlled by medication, or to those who are intolerant to medication, as long as they do not have severe neuropsychiatric problems.Other, less common, surgical therapies involve intentional formation of lesions to suppress overactivity of specific subcortical areas. For example, pallidotomy involves surgical destruction of the globus pallidus to control dyskinesia.


There is some evidence that speech or mobility problems can improve with rehabilitation, although studies are scarce and of low quality. Regular physical exercise with or without physiotherapy can be beneficial to maintain and improve mobility, flexibility, strength, gait speed, and quality of life. However, when an exercise program is performed under the supervision of a physiotherapist, there are more improvements in motor symptoms, mental and emotional functions, daily living activities, and quality of life compared to a self-supervised exercise program at home. In terms of improving flexibility and range of motion for patients experiencing rigidity, generalized relaxation techniques such as gentle rocking have been found to decrease excessive muscle tension. Other effective techniques to promote relaxation include slow rotational movements of the extremities and trunk, rhythmic initiation, diaphragmatic breathing, and meditation techniques. As for gait and addressing the challenges associated with the disease such as hypokinesia (slowness of movement), shuffling and decreased arm swing; physiotherapists have a variety of strategies to improve functional mobility and safety. Areas of interest with respect to gait during rehabilitation programs focus on but are not limited to improving gait speed, base of support, stride length, trunk and arm swing movement. Strategies include utilizing assistive equipment (pole walking and treadmill walking), verbal cueing (manual, visual and auditory), exercises (marching and PNF patterns) and altering environments (surfaces, inputs, open vs. closed).Strengthening exercises have shown improvements in strength and motor function for patients with primary muscular weakness and weakness related to inactivity with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease. However, reports show a significant interaction between strength and the time the medications was taken. Therefore, it is recommended that patients should perform exercises 45 minutes to one hour after medications, when the patient is at their best. Also, due to the forward flexed posture, and respiratory dysfunctions in advanced Parkinson’s disease, deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises are beneficial in improving chest wall mobility and vital capacity.[48] Exercise may improve constipation.

One of the most widely practiced treatments for speech disorders associated with Parkinson’s disease is the Lee Silverman voice treatment (LSVT).[ Speech therapy and specifically LSVT may improve speech. Occupational therapy (OT) aims to promote health and quality of life by helping people with the disease to participate in as many of their daily living activities as possible. There have been few studies on the effectiveness of OT and their quality is poor, although there is some indication that it may improve motor skills and quality of life for the duration of the therapy.

Palliative Care

Palliative care is often required in the final stages of the disease when all other treatment strategies have become ineffective. The aim of palliative care is to maximize the quality of life for the person with the disease and those surrounding him or her. Some central issues of palliative care are: care in the community while adequate care can be given there, reducing or withdrawing drug intake to reduce drug side effects, preventing pressure ulcers by management of pressure areas of inactive patients, and facilitating end-of-life decisions for the patient as well as involved friends and relatives.

Other Treatments

Muscles and nerves that control the digestive process may be affected by PD, resulting in constipation and gastroparesis (food remaining in the stomach for a longer period of time than normal). A balanced diet, based on periodical nutritional assessments, is recommended and should be designed to avoid weight loss or gain and minimize consequences of gastrointestinal dysfunction. As the disease advances, swallowing difficulties (dysphagia) may appear. In such cases it may be helpful to use thickening agents for liquid intake and an upright posture when eating, both measures reducing the risk of choking. Gastrostomy to deliver food directly into the stomach is possible in severe cases.

Levodopa and proteins use the same transportation system in the intestine and the blood–brain barrier, thereby competing for access. When they are taken together, this results in a reduced effectiveness of the drug. Therefore, when levodopa is introduced, excessive protein consumption is discouraged and well balanced Mediterranean diet is recommended. In advanced stages, additional intake of low-protein products such as bread or pasta is recommended for similar reasons. To minimize interaction with proteins, levodopa should be taken 30 minutes before meals. At the same time, regimens for PD restrict proteins during breakfast and lunch, allowing protein intake in the evening.

Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation temporarily improves levodopa-induced dyskinesias. Its usefulness in PD is an open research topic,although recent studies have shown no effect by rTMS. Several nutrients have been proposed as possible treatments; however there is no evidence that vitamins or food additives improve symptoms.There is no evidence to substantiate that acupuncture and practice of Qigong, or T’ai chi, have any effect on the course of the disease or symptoms. Further research on the viability of Tai chi for balance or motor skills are necessary. Fava beans and velvet beans are natural sources of levodopa and are eaten by many people with PD. While they have shown some effectiveness in clinical trials, their intake is not free of risks. Life-threatening adverse reactions have been described, such as the neuroleptic malignant syndrome.