New hope for people living with Parkinson’s

What a relief,” said the man as his wildly trembling arm stabilized. “Believe me, it’s magic.” He was referring to the effectiveness of deep brain stimulation in controlling the manifestations of Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Without the electrode, implanted very precisely in a specific area of his brain, he confided his life would be very different. “I couldn’t function without it at all,” he admitted.

His doctor had first noticed symptoms of the disease some 13 years ago. Unfortunately, as the disease progressed, the gentleman became increasing unable to tolerate drug therapy. Almost four years ago, he participated in an eight-hour operation to insert the electrode.

And participate he did. “I’m always impressed with the courage of these patients,” said Dr. Andres Lozano of the Movement Disorders Clinic at the Toronto Hospital, Western Division, noting that patients have to be awake and responding as the operation progresses, so the electrode will be placed in exactly the right area. “We have a two to three mm-sized target,” said Lozano, and we have to be accurate within 1 mm.”

The electrode, powered by a pacemaker implanted in the patient’s chest, stimulates the targeted ea of the brain and relieves the patient’s symptoms, which may include tremor, rigidity, jerky movement or problems with fine motor skills. But surgery, with its inherent risks, is not the first treatment of choice, suitable for all PD patients.

At this point in time, there is no cure for Parkinson’s and therapy is centred on controlling symptoms. The primary drug for this purpose is levodopa, introduced in the 1960s. Recently, new drugs (ropinirole, pramipexole and tolcapone) have been introduced in Canada over the past year, adding to the list of drugs that are helping people suffering from Parkinson’s live a normal life.

But the discovery of both a cause and a cure for the disease British doctor James L. Parkinson described as the “shaking palsy” remains elusive. Two initiatives, both targeted at raising endowments of two million dollars, are currently underway to promote research into this debilitating disease and educate Canadians about its effects on life and lifestyles of patients, caregivers and families.

The Parkinson Foundation of Canada established the Laura L. Sabia Education and Research Endowment in 1997 to honour Ms. Sabia, who died in Oct. 1996 following complications from Parkinson’s disease. Co-founder of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and national chairwoman of the Committee for the Equality of Women, Ms. Sabia was instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1967. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1974.

To date, $750,000 has been raised. As well as increasing awareness of the disease and its effects, proceeds from the investment of the funds will be used to provide educational material for both people with Parkinson’s and their families. It will encourage research into the cause of the disease, including environmental and genetic factors, and will support the development of a cure.

To maintain and expand research in Functional Neurosurgery and Parkinson’s disease, the Toronto Hospital and University of Toronto will establish the world’s first Chair in Stereotactic and Functionary Neurosurgery and Parkinson’s disease. The Chair will celebrate the pioneering contributions made by Professor Tasker, whose efforts have brought the two organizations to international prominence for excellence in stereotactic and functional neurosurgery.

Funds will provide for the hiring of a neuroscientist and research personnel and the equipping of research laboratories.

Over the past five years, the Parkinson Foundation of Canada has committed over $6.5 million to 125 Canadian scientists for research in Parkinson’s disease. The Foundation supports 10 movement disorder clinics and four community outreach programs. To contact the Foundation, call 1-800-565-3000 (in Toronto call 366-0099).