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The Link Between Parkinson’s and Drug Addiction
Parkinson’s disease is a well-known disorder because of its trademark symptoms. There are many different ways that an individual may develop Parkinson’s, and one of those ways is through addiction to drugs.
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- Parkinson’s Disease Explained
- Who is at Risk for Parkinson’s?
- Dopamine’s Key Role in Parkinson’s Explained
- Legal Drugs That Put People at Risk for Developing Parkinson’s
- Illegal Drugs That Put People at Risk for Developing Parkinson’s
- Treating Parkinson’s Disease and Addiction
Parkinson’s Disease Explained
Parkinson’s disease is a brain abnormality with symptoms that show up slowly. It may begin with a simple tremor in an extremity, but the symptoms worsen over time. These symptoms are difficulty walking, shakiness, problems with coordination, difficulty in balancing, and stiffness. Often, those with Parkinson’s are wheelchair-bound by the time the disease has advanced.
Motor symptoms will begin to appear on one side of the body and will usually remain more intense on that side of the body. The first symptoms unrelated to physical movement that appear are difficulties with sleep, depression, memory, and fatigue. This progresses into behavioral and mental changes. Those suffering from Parkinson’s will end up having problems talking and walking. They may also develop dementia. Each person that develops this disorder will show a slightly different range of symptoms due to individualized brain chemistry.
Parkinson’s is caused by the impairment or death of neurons in the brain. These neurons die in the part of the brain responsible for movement. When these cells are healthy, they produce enough dopamine to keep the brain and body running smoothly. The cell death generally occurs in the part of the brain called the substantia nigra, though it can also occur elsewhere. This area of the brain is responsible for almost all dopamine production. Due to cell impairment or death, the neurons of a Parkinson’s patient quit producing enough dopamine causing the tell-tale symptoms.
The nerve endings that produce norepinephrine are also lost as Parkinson’s progresses. Norepinephrine is important in regulating bodily functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. This may also explain symptoms such as fatigue, the slowing of the digestive tract, and why patients experience a drastic decrease in blood pressure when they stand up. Researchers and doctors still do not understand what causes the impairment and cell death that leads to Parkinson’s, and there is no known cure for the disease. Most people who develop Parkinson’s end up dying from the disorder or a complication caused by it.
Who is at Risk for Parkinson’s?
Parkinson’s almost always develops in the elderly. The first symptoms are usually identified around age 60, however, 5 to 10% of patients develop the disease before age 50. One in 100 Americans over age 60 has the disease. Early-onset Parkinson’s is usually a genetic inheritance. Its development may be linked to the mutation of a certain gene.
Men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s instead of women, and around 1 million Americans are diagnosed with the condition. The reason for this is not understood. Individuals usually do not develop symptoms of Parkinson’s until over 80% of the neurons in the substantia nigra have died. Outside of the hypothesized genetic marker that may cause Parkinson’s, no one really knows why the disease strikes, and it’s almost impossible to predict if it’s going to show up in someone’s life.
Some environmental toxins may cause Parkinson’s, but researchers haven’t pinned down which ones. Currently, the link between pesticides and herbicides and the onset of Parkinson’s is of interest to scientists. Lewy bodies are important to Parkinson’s researchers and may hold the key to what causes Parkinson’s and how to cure it. They are not generally present in the brains of healthy individuals. Lewy bodies contain clumps of a specific protein that cells are unable to break down. Why this happens is unknown, but studying this phenomenon is at the forefront of Parkinson’s research.
Sometimes antipsychotic medications cause symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, like unregulated motor movements. Usually, these symptoms subside when the medication is changed or reduced. People that are susceptible to strokes may experience an onset of Parkinson’s disease. This is because the strokes cause parts of the brain to die, and the parts that die may be the same as the parts affected by Parkinson’s.
Dopamine’s Key Role in Parkinson’s Explained
In order to understand the link between drug addiction and Parkinson’s disease, it’s important to understand the role dopamine plays in both. Dopamine is the top controller of movement and environmental interaction and it also rules our reasons for these interactions.
The cells in the brain that transmit information are called neurons. These neurons rely on chemicals called neurotransmitters to pass information around in the brain. Any disruption of the natural neurotransmission process can cause drastic consequences.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that dominates our emotions and our motivations. It affects our ability to perceive punishment and reward. Our brain’s neurons work as a circuit, and the circuits controlling behavior are dopamine-dependent. Dopamine not only drives us to seek pleasure, but it is also responsible for creating pleasure.
Drugs create large amounts of dopamine while causing euphoria. Eventually, the brain becomes dependent on this dopamine dump to function. The link between drug consumption and pleasure becomes burned into the brain, and the brain begins to prioritize drug consumption over other life activities. The drugs are now the supplier of dopamine instead of the user’s body.
This altering of neurons in the brain in relation to dopamine mirrors Parkinson’s in some cases, as the neurons in Parkinson’s patients are also damaged with regard to dopamine. Basically, the use of substances causes chemical imbalances in the brain that can trigger the development of Parkinson’s.
Legal Drugs That Put You at Risk for Developing Parkinson’s
Nicotine and Caffeine
Not all drugs put you at risk for Parkinson’s disease. For example, nicotine and caffeine statistically actually reduce your risk of the disease. Studies have shown that there is a 60% decrease in the likelihood of developing Parkinson’s in cigarette smokers. Coffee drinkers are at a 30% lower risk of the development of the disease.
Alcohol abuse is a known cause of Parkinson’s due to its neurotoxicity, and people suffering from alcoholism are more likely to develop the disease. However, limited consumption of red wine may actually protect against Parkinson’s as it has a specific molecule in it that is seen as a neuroprotective agent.
Illegal Drugs That Put You at Risk for Developing Parkinson’s
MDMA, or ecstasy, is an illicit drug that causes euphoria. In studies, it is shown to help Parkinson’s patients by reducing dyskinesia. Dyskinesia describes involuntary movements, and MDMA may be able to eradicate these movements in Parkinson’s patients.
By no means does this mean that a Parkinson’s patient should pick up MDMA to relieve symptoms. MDMA is extremely problematic in that it greatly affects neurotransmitters by flooding the brain with too many of them. Prolonged MDMA use is linked to the development of mental illnesses such as depression. Since patients with Parkinson’s are already at a higher risk for depression, purposeful MDMA use to help dyskinesia may exacerbate other debilitating side effects that are present. Do not do ecstasy to help with symptoms of Parkinson’s.
Meth users are at a high risk of developing Parkinson’s. It has been shown in animal studies that meth use damages dopamine neurons over time so it makes sense that a dopamine disorder like Parkinson’s can result from misuse.
Cocaine abusers have a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s and using cocaine while pregnant causes a higher risk of developing the disease in the resulting child. Cocaine alters nerve functionality in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, which makes neurons more susceptible to a toxin known as MPTP.
Studies have shown that MPTP is linked to the symptoms of Parkinson’s. The nerve cell death in Parkinson’s patients is also in the substantia nigra, which may be a reason cocaine causes such susceptibility in the development of the disease.
Opioids and Opiates
Drugs like heroin and Demerol contain MPTP and are able to cause symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease. MPTP may cause neuron death in the substantia nigra, so it’s no surprise that abusers of this class of drugs develop Parkinson’s.
Treating Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s treatments focus on replacing the dopamine that has been lost due to the disorder. However, since some drugs actually protect against Parkinson’s disease, it’s possible that certain abused substances are actually protecting abusers from developing symptoms.
DRT, or dopamine replacement therapy, is the go-to treatment for Parkinson’s Disorder. It helps alleviate some of the motor problems associated with the disease. DRT tries to stimulate dopamine production to compensate for the loss of neurons that produce the neurotransmitter. These medications can cause a drastic improvement in symptoms. Studies on animals show that the cannabinoids in marijuana assist the brain with motor control in the presence of Parkinson’s. This is why many Parkinson’s patients seek out medical marijuana prescriptions.
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is very effective at treating motor dysfunctions in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Its immense success amongst patients with Parkinson’s has caused researchers to begin using it for other diseases like addiction. Sometimes doctors recommend surgery in order to repair damaged parts of the brain. When damaged brain tissue is removed, sometimes this stimulates the regrowth of neurons.
DRT addiction happens among those being treated for Parkinson’s disease. Patients will increase their recommended dose and will use their medication in excess compulsively. This abuse closely resembles stimulant addiction. The patients disregard the toxic nature of overdosing on their medication and they experience withdrawals when they are not able to consume their medication in excess.
The withdrawals they experience are dysphoria, anxiety, cravings, fatigue, panic attacks, depression, dizziness, nausea, insomnia, and agitation. These symptoms are very similar to the withdrawal felt by those that abuse other drugs.
Getting Help for Drug Addiction
Parkinson’s is a debilitating disorder that some people cannot avoid developing. However, drug users are able to curb their increased likelihood of contracting the disease if they seek help as soon as possible.
If you are concerned about your drug or alcohol use and would like to speak to a rehab admissions specialist regarding questions about treatment call us today.
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Sources on Parkinson’s Disease and Addiction
Medically Reviewed By:
Dr. Patricia Sullivan MD MPH on 11/03/2021
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