June 14, 2012

An Update to Frontline's Excellent 2009 Report on Parkinson's

This week, PBS's Frontline reran its excellent 2009 report about Parkinson's Disease: My Father, My Brother, and Me. If you haven't seen it, I'd urge you to view it: Iverson Frontline. A 2012 update to the film appears at the end of this post.

The story was reported by Dave Iverson, who received in 2004 the same news his father and older brother had heard years earlier -- he had Parkinson's disease. The documentary reviews the role that genetics might play as a contributing factor. I was particularly intrigued by the story of a gene mutation that might cause a predisposition to PD. That particular genetic mutation was found in people around Carthage -- along north Africa's Mediterranean coast -- and also among people living along the Norwegian coast. Had the Vikings, in their wide explorations, brought this genetic heritage with them? With his own Norwegian ancestry, Iverson was especially interested.

The program also explores the possible connection between  PD and industrial / agricultural chemicals.  Parkinson's was discovered in 1817, as the Industrial Revolution was really gathering steam. Exposure to pesticides can increase the risk of developing Parkinson's by 70 percent -- a dramatic statistic that spawned the maxim "genetics loads the PD gun and pesticides pull  the trigger."

The episode surveys the search for a PD cure... from early, disappointing fetal cell transplants to later studies with embryonic stem cells.

I'm as eager as the next guy for a breakthrough on a cure, but for me the central issue remains: how to live with Parkinson's today. So, I was particularly interested in the documentary's closing section about impact of exercise on Parkinson's.

One fascinating segment focused on a study that compared monkeys who exercised on a treadmill with sedentary monkeys. When the monkeys were injected with a herbicidal chemical known to induce Parkinson's, brain scans showed distinct adverse changes in the brains of the sedentary monkeys, while the brains of the treadmill monkeys changed very little.

One researcher said she was convinced that a well-designed exercise program is more effective for many of us with Parkinson's than most of the medicines we take.

June 2012 Update on Iverson
Dave Iverson still hosts a public radio call-in program in San Francisco and creates documentaries for public television. He's doing well. His PD symptoms remain minor, thanks to exercise (he ran the 2011 New York City marathon!) and medicine.

After the Frontline documentary, he got involved in a variety of PD-related activities -- a decision, he says, that "has given me a chance to meet remarkable people around the country and  around the globe." Many of those people with Parkinson's are searching for hope as they learn to live with the disease. I like this quote from Iverson:
"And it is that hunger for hope that forges the common denominator across the incredibly  diverse continuum of Parkinson's disease. As Michael J. Fox likes to say, we each get our own version of Parkinson's Disease, but unfortunately none of them comes with operating instructions to figure out what we can do rather than what we can't. As the late Harvard theologian Peter Gomes once wrote, "Hope doesn't get you out, but it does get you through. To be without hope is to be without a future'."
Update on Parkinson's Disease Research
The world of PD research has exploded since the 2009 docmentary, Iverson says. We used to think Parkinson's was all about dopamine -- the neurotransmitter that goes missing with PD and is the key to how the brain signals movement to the body. Now we're realizing that many things that affect people with Parkinson's -- from depression to a loss of sense of smell have a different origin. This is good news and bad news.  The bad news is that solving Parkinson's has become more complicated than we'd thought. The good news is that scientists are discovering  new targets for treating the disease.

And then there's what fascinates me the most -- the new awareness of the brain's plasticity (its ability to change and grow, even late in life) and the impact on it of activities like tai chi and tango dancing., Last year, Iverson did a piece for the PBS News Hour on Parkinson's and Dance: http://to.pbs.org/MFt06x.

A Plea for Help
Despite all the promise, research isn't progressing as fast as it could, Iverson says. A big reason why -- 85 percent of all clinical trials are delayed because they can't recruit enough volunteers to participate.

Iverson has set a goal for himself to get 100 people to sign up for research. He says:
It's probably the single most important contribution anyone can make toward speeding the cure for Parkinson's. So if you'd like to learn more about participating in clinical trials and my own [NYC marathon] run, see www.teamfox.org/goto/iverson.
And the Best Update News
Iverson's mother Adelaide, the star of the documentary at age 96, celebrated her 100th birthday this year!

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