Parkinson’s Disease on the Mind

People often associate tremor with Parkinson’s disease (PD), a progressive neurodegenerative disorder originally named “shaking palsy,” but did you know that one-quarter to one-third of patients don’t exhibit this symptom? At Wednesday night’s event for Brain Awareness Week, “On the Mind: Parkinson’s, Movement, and Dance,” we heard from top NYU doctors about symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, but also from a PD patient on his experience with disease and how dance helped him come to terms with his diagnosis.

There are four cardinal clinical features of PD: rest tremor, slowness, stiffness in muscles, and balance problems, said Andrew Feigin, M.D., director of the Fresco Institute at NYU Langone Health. Not everyone gets all four, he said, but people with Parkinsonism have two or more, and are often diagnosed with PD. Because it is a progressive disease, these symptoms can lead to other troubles, including quiet or slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, and shuffling gait, as well as non-motor features such as depression, impulse control, and sleep disturbances.

Actor Michael J. Fox and the late boxer Muhammad Ali, both diagnosed with PD, dramatically increased public awareness of the disease in the past few decades, but it was first discovered in the early 1800s by James Parkinson. Around 1 million people in the U.S. and 6 million people worldwide have PD.

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Huntington’s Disease on the Mind

On the Mind” is a series that aims to demystify biological disorders and give a platform to patients; at last week’s event at New York’s Caveat, the focus was on Huntington’s disease (HD), a slowly progressive, hereditary neurodegenerative disorder that causes cognitive, psychiatric, and motor problems. The evening’s program had three parts: the scientific story of HD, dance performances inspired by HD, and the personal story of Justin Goldberg, whose father has HD and who is himself at risk for the disease.

Approximately 30,000 people in the US are living with HD and another 200,000 are at risk, with diagnosis usually occurring when a person reaches his or her early 40s and begins to exhibit motor symptoms, said Leora Fox, Ph.D., manager of mission and research programs at the Huntington’s Disease Society of America. Presently, there are no treatments that can slow or stop Huntington’s disease.

Leora Fox discusses brain cell loss in people with HD

Everyone has two copies of the huntingtin gene (one from each parent), she explained, and the existing hypothesis is that the disease is caused by a mutation on the gene that gives instructions to produce a toxic huntingtin protein (“DNA makes RNA makes protein”), which eventually leads to death of brain cells. The logical solution therefore seems to be: “Lower the amount of huntingtin in the brain,” she said.

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