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Parkinson's Disease

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Although Parkinson's disease was discovered over a century ago the exact cause of the disease remains a mystery.

Bodily movements are regulated by a portion of the brain called the basal ganglia, whose cells require a proper balance of two substances called dopamine and acetylcholine, both involved in the transmission of nerve impulses. In Parkinson's, cells that produce dopamine begin to degenerate. Insufficient dopamine disturbs the balance between dopamine and other transmitters, such as acetylcholine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger responsible for transmitting signals between the substantia nigra and the next "relay station" of the brain, the corpus striatum, to produce smooth, purposeful muscle activity. Loss of dopamine causes the nerve cells of the striatum to fire out of control, leaving patients unable to direct or control their movements in a normal manner. Studies have shown that Parkinson's patients have a loss of 80 percent or more of dopamine-producing cells in the substantia nigra.

The exact cause of this cell death or impairment is not known. Significant findings have been made by research scientists lately that provide important new clues to the disease. One theory holds that free radicals-unstable and potentially damaging molecules generated by normal chemical reactions in the body--may contribute to nerve cell death, thereby leading to Parkinson's disease. 

Free Radicals and Anti-Oxidants

Free radicals are the highly unstable chemicals that attack, infiltrate, and injure vital cell structures. Most stable chemical compounds in the body possess a pair of electrons. Sometimes, one member of the electron pair gets stripped away. The resulting compound (less one electron) is called a free radical.

In chemistry, the term free radical means that it is now free to combine with another element to form a new stable compound. One way to think of free radical is the way our social system work. In a family there is husband and wife. They are joined together. Both are "tied up" or not available for other partners. Now, for some reason they get separated. Now both mates can look for another person to join together. The way free radicals work, one of these free spouse go and break up a stable marriage of another couple, by joining with one of the spouses. This results in the ouster of a person from that family creating a brand new "free radical" who goes around prowling to find another "compound" to attack. You can see that free radicals can do lot of harm by forming a chain reaction.

A similar thing happens with free radicals in the body. When a free radical is born, it goes around the body looking for another compound to steal an electron from. This breaks up this"contented" couple, that results in releasing another free radical, and so on. While on the prowl, these free radicals (which are really the oxidation products from the body) can do tremendous damage to the delicate machinery of your cells. The most studied free radical chain reaction in living things is lipid peroxidation. (The term lipid refers to any fat-soluble substance, animal or vegetable. Peroxidation means the formation of a peroxide molecule. These are the molecules with the greatest proportion of oxygen molecules. For example, water molecule has tow hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Hydrogen peroxide has two Hydrogen atoms and two oxygen atoms. In other words, there is an excess oxygen atom in hydrogen peroxide.)

Ninety eight percent of the oxygen we breathe is used by tiny powerhouses within our cells called mitochondria, that convert sugar, fats and inorganic phosphate (ADP), oxygen into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the universal form of energy we need to live. This energy producing activity of the mitochondria involves a series of intricate, complex and vital biochemical processes dependent on vast numbers of enzymes (estimates vary from 500 to 10,000 sets of oxidative enzymes). These, in turn, are dependent upon dozens of nutrient factors and co-factors. In this metabolism process a very small amount of left over oxygen loses electrons, creating free radicals. These free radicals burn holes in our cellular membranes. Calcium penetrate our cells through these holes. This excess calcium results in cell death. This, in turn, weakens tissues and organs. As this damage continues, our body become "rusty", less able to fight other invaders such as cancer, hardening of the arteries, premature aging, and other bodily disorders.

Because of the amount of oxygen we breathe every day (our bodies take 630 quadrillion damaging oxygen hits per day. This means each of our cells takes about 10,000 hits per day and each DNA strand in the cell gets hit 5,000 times per day. This free radical bombardment causes a typical human cell to undergo thousands of changes or mutations daily.If a DNA strand gets hit and it is not repaired before its twin gets hit, we will have the onset to a potentially lethal cancer.

In addition to the oxygen we breathe, the free radicals can also come from such things as environmental pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke, chemicals, and herbicides.

The key to having a healthy body is to repair the damages caused by the free radicals before it is too late, and to protect the body's tissue cells from the free radicals before they cause mutations. Antioxidants are substances that have free-radical chain-reaction-breaking properties. Like a bouncer, the antioxidants deactivate potentially dangerous free radicals before they can damage a cells machinery. Most of these antioxidants come from plants and are called phytochemicals. More than 60,000 such plant chemicals are identified. Among the most effective and dedicated antioxidants are Vitamin A, C, and E (known as the ACE trio against cancer.). Out of these, Vitamin C is the most powerful.

Each cell produces its own antioxidants. But the ability to produce them decreases as we age. That is why diet rich in anti-oxidant and phytochemical rich fruits and vegetables supplemented with additional vitamins and minerals is important.

Oxidation due to free radicals is thought to cause damage to tissues, including neurons. Normally, free radical damage is kept under control by antioxidant chemicals that protect cells from this damage. Researchers found that patients with Parkinson's disease have increased brain levels of iron, especially in the substantia nigra, and decreased levels of feritin, which serves as a protective mechanism by chelating, or forming a ring around the iron, and isolating it. This led to the conclusion that oxidative mechanisms may cause or contribute to Parkinson's disease.

Parkinson's disease may occur when either an external or an internal toxin selectively destroys dopaminergic neurons. An environmental risk factor such as exposure to pesticides or a toxin in the food supply is an example of the kind of external trigger that could hypothetically cause Parkinson's disease. The theory is based on the fact that there are a number of toxins, such as 1-methyl 4-phenyl-1,2,3,6,-tetra- hydropyridine (mptp) and neuroleptic drugs, that induce parkinsonian symptoms in humans. So far no research has provided conclusive proof that a toxin is the cause of the disease.

Researchers believe that genetics sometimes plays a role in the cellular breakdown. Fifteen to twenty percent of Parkinson's patients have a close relative who has experienced parkinsonian symptoms (such as a tremor). After studies in animals showed that mptp interferes with the function of mitochondria within nerve cells, investigators became interested in the possibility that impairment in mitochondrial DNA may be the cause of Parkinson's disease. Mitochondria is found in all animal cells that convert the energy in food into fuel for the cells.

In some individuals, the normal, age-related wearing away of dopamine-producing neurons accelerates. The exact cause for this is not known; but, if this happens, then it can also result in Parkinson's disease. This theory is supported by the fact that the loss of antioxidative protective mechanisms is associated with both Parkinson's disease and increasing age.

In rare instances, Parkinson's disease may be caused by a viral infection.

Many researchers believe that a combination of oxidative damage, environmental toxins, genetic predisposition, and accelerated aging may ultimately be shown to cause the disease.

The typical symptoms of Parkinson's also occur in meningitis and various types of poisoning from alcohol, carbon monoxide and heavy metals. This group of symptoms is called Parkinsonism. Overdoses of manganese also cause Parkinson's symptoms, and high levels of stored iron are found in those with Parkinson's disease. Other causes of parkinsonism include:

bulletAn adverse reaction to prescription drugs
bulletUse of illegal drugs
bulletExposure to environmental toxins
bulletThyroid and parathyroid disorders
bulletRepeated head trauma (for example, the trauma associated with boxing)
bulletBrain tumor
bulletAn excess of fluid around the brain (called hydrocephalus)
bulletBrain inflammation (encephalitis) resulting from infection

Parkinsonism may also be present in persons with other neurological conditions, including Alzheimer's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Wilson's disease and Huntington's disease.

Poor nutrition is an underlying cause of Parkinson's disease. High consumption of meat, rich in protein, also aggravates symptoms of Parkinson's and inhibits the body's use of vitamin B-6, which helps treat brain dysfunction.

Symptoms of Parkinson's should not be confused with milder problems that are common as people get older, including slower, stiffer movements from aching joints, and trembling. Problems with poor memory and a lack of facial expression are often linked to depression.

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