In December, two reports in the New York Times called attention to the potential link between paraquat, a strong pesticide, and Parkinson’s disease (PD). The pesticide, which has been previously linked to Parkinson’s, is banned in some countries including those where it is manufactured, but not in the US.
What should people with Parkinson’s know about this news?
First, it’s important to note that while we still don’t know what causes the disease in the vast majority of people, it is generally accepted that “genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger” for Parkinson’s. What does the science say? In the laboratory, there is a history of evidence demonstrating that paraquat causes Parkinson’s symptoms in animals, although recent research in rodents (here and here) has found evidence to the contrary.
Overall, there is a clear link between pesticides and PD. We just aren’t sure exactly how they work.
Second, in our view, the important take-away from the New York Times reports isn’t necessarily about the role of one pesticide (although it’s important that we better understand paraquat). Instead, it’s about the unfortunate degree to which epidemiology – the type of science that studies how behaviors and environment impact our health – has become a poor stepchild of Parkinson’s research. It hasn’t received the recognition or support it warrants.
Certainly, epidemiology has proven its value in Parkinson’s research. For example, it has helped us to identify who develops Parkinson’s and what they have in common. Epidemiological studies have led to the discovery that heavy smokers and coffee drinkers have a reduced risk of PD. In turn, this has led scientists to study how caffeine and nicotine could be therapeutics.
But to date, results of epidemiological studies have not yielded practical changes to our society’s approach toward potentially harmful pesticides. More work is needed, as is greater support for the epidemiological studies that are bringing us these insights.
The number of people with Parkinson’s is set to double by 2030. At the Parkinson’s Foundation, it’s our responsibility to understand what causes PD and work to prevent it before millions more are affected. We are beginning this process by funding research (including epidemiology studies) to find out how many people have Parkinson’s in the US and who they are.
If we can understand who has PD, we can begin to understand what puts people at risk. One day, with that knowledge, perhaps we can prevent PD. It is clear that as we move forward, epidemiology will be there to help us. But first it needs our support.
Do you have more questions about this topic? Learn more by contacting our toll-free Helpline at (800) 473-4PD-INFO (473-4636) or firstname.lastname@example.org with any additional questions.
James Beck, Ph.D., has led the scientific affairs of the Parkinson's Foundation since 2008. Dr. Beck oversees the foundation’s research strategy and programs, including management of grants that support research centers, individual investigators, fellows and collaborative projects.