Robin Williams' Other Legacy: Raising Parkinson's Awareness, Funding

8/15/2014

In the below article from NewsmaxHealth, NPF's National Medical Director, Dr. Michael S. Okun, comments on Parkinson's disease (PD) in the wake of news reporting that actor Robin Williams was in the early stages of PD.


With tributes flowing in for Robin Williams, the chief medical official at the National Parkinson’s Foundation is hopeful the comedian’s passing will help raise awareness of the disease and the “double whammy” it poses to patients who also experience depression.
 
“With Parkinson’s disease, depression is the largest hurdle that people face. You would think it would be mobility problems, but our surveys have shown that [it] is actually depression that they find their biggest challenge,” says Michael Okun, M.D., the medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation, told Newsmax Health.
 
The foundation is fielding increased phone calls to its help line in the wake of the news that Williams took his own life Monday shortly after learning he had early-stage Parkinson’s disease, Dr. Okun says. He also expects increased donations for research and assistance to follow.
 
The late actor was said to be “very depressed” at the time he committed suicide. It isn’t known whether that diagnosis triggered Williams’ decision to take his life. While Williams’ action was extreme, “When a person hears, ‘You have Parkinson’s disease,’ they are devastated,” notes Dr. Okun.
 
“They believe it’s like having Lou Gehrig’s disease, a brain tumor, or Alzheimer’s disease. But … Parkinson’s disease is a very livable disease. With the best possible treatments, people can live long and happy lives.
 
“But what complicates this is that the majority of people with Parkinson’s disease are depressed. So we advocate early treatment of depression.”
 
According to Dr. Okun, mobility, rigidity, slowed movements, and balance and walking problems are the most commonly identified symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but depression actually takes a greater toll on many patients’ quality of life.
 
Up to 60 percent of people with Parkinson’s disease are depressed, and research indicates that this is not only due to difficulty dealing with the disease, but also stems from changes in the brain itself.
 
The expected awareness surge about the link between Parkinson’s and depression in the wake of the actor’s death is not Williams’ only contribution to fighting the disease, Dr. Okun says.  Nearly 25 years ago, the actor portrayed a doctor treating patients with severe Parkinsonian symptoms in the movie, “Awakenings.”
 
“In the movie ‘Awakenings,’ Robin Williams’ played a doctor who administered L-Dopa to patients who were left catatonic after a great flu epidemic. That treatment was a game changer and Williams’ role in showing that was one of the great contributions he made to the Parkinson’s disease community,” Dr. Okun notes.
 
While L-Dopa remains the key medication to help lessen the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, there have been other treatments developed, the most notable being deep brain stimulation (DBS). 
 
The therapy treats the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s through the use of a surgically implanted, battery-operated medical device, similar to a heart pacemaker. The device delivers electrical stimulation to specific areas in the brain that control movement, thus blocking the abnormal nerve signals that the symptoms.
 
In addition, progress is being made toward developing a vaccine to halt the progression of Parkinson’s. The vaccine prevents protein deposits from forming in the brain, which occurs during Parkinson’s disease. The results of early testing, which were announced by the manufacturer, AFFiRiS AG, show it to be well tolerated and it will now enter clinical testing, the company announced on July 31.
 
In addition, researchers are working on stem cell treatments in hopes that these cells, which are considered the body’s “master cells,” can be used to help treat the disease. 
 
In addition, 18 companies are currently working on treatments or medications aimed at Parkinson’s disease. Some of these are variations of L-Dopa, including a gel called Duodopa, which contains levodopa. That medication has been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval.
 
— Charlotte Libov

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