Friday, April 11, 2014

James Parkinson and Parkinson's Disease

Woodcut of a man suffering from
Parkinson's disease
published in 1886
On April 11, 1755, English apothecary surgeon, geologist, paleontologist, and political activist James Parkinson was born. He is most famous for his 1817 work, An Essay on the Shaking Palsy, in which he was the first to describe "paralysis agitans", a condition that would later be renamed Parkinson's disease.

James Parkinson was born in London. His father was an apothecary and surgeon, practicing in the city and in 1784 Parkinson was approved as a surgeon as well. Next to his medical practice, Parkinson's interest in politics grew as well. He was known as an advocate for the under-privileged and proponent for the French Revolution. During his lifetime, Parkinson published several political writings, especially in the post-French Revolution period. However, between 1799 and 1807, Parkinson published several medical works including first papers on peritonitis. Next to his most important research topic, Parkinson's disease, the scientists also helped improving the general health of the population. Parkinson published doctrines, proposing methods for a better health and welfare as well as legal protection for the mentally ill.

Before James Parkinson, the disease's symptoms were indeed described. The oldest known records were found in Egyptian papyrus from the 12th century B.C. mentioning a king drooling with age and also the Bible contains several references to tremor. Also in the 17th century, the disease was observed and distinguished from other tremors. In 1817 however, it was James Parkinson, who published an essay describing six cases of paralysis agitans. Another essay described on the 'Shaking Palsy' described the characteristic resting tremor, abnormal posture and gait, paralysis and diminished muscle strength. Also, an explanation on the diseases progress over time was given in the paper. Unfortunately, the now famous essay received only very little attention after being published, even though on this day, it is considered the seminal work on the disease. In the following years, several neurologists continued researching the 'Shaky Palsy' and managed to make further additions to the knowledge on the disease. The French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot is probably the most notable and best known scientist whose studies between 1868 and 1881 were a landmark in the understanding of the disease. Among other advances he made the distinction between rigidity, weakness and bradykinesia. He also championed the renaming of the disease in honor of James Parkinson.

Next to observing and describing the Parkinson's disease, scientists also began finding possible treatments. Modern surgery for tremor, consisting of the lesioning of some of the basal ganglia structures was first tried in 1939 and was improved over the following 20 years. By the late 1980s deep brain stimulation emerged as a possible treatment and it was approved for clinical use in 1997.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture by Dr Melita Petrossian, who explains Parkinson's Disease

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