Around one in 500 people are affected by Parkinson’s disease, which means there are an estimated 127,000 people in the UK with the condition.
Most people with Parkinson’s start to develop symptoms when they are over 50, although one in 20 people with the condition first experience symptoms when they are under 40. Men are more likely to get Parkinson’s disease than women.
What is Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease is caused by a loss of nerve cells in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. This leads to a reduction in the amount of dopamine in the brain.
Dopamine plays a vital role in regulating the movement of the body and a reduction in dopamine is responsible for many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Exactly what causes the loss of nerve cells is unclear. Most experts think that a combination of genetic and environmental factors is responsible.
What are the symptoms?
The three main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are:
- tremor (involuntary shaking of particular parts of the body)
- slow movement
- stiff and inflexible muscles
A person with this disease can also experience a wider range of physical and psychological symptoms, including depression, constipation, insomnia, loss of sense of smell and memory problems.
How is it treated?
There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease, although treatments are available to help reduce the main symptoms and maintain your quality of life for as long as possible.
These include supportive treatments (such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy), medication and, in some cases, surgery.
Why do experts believe that stem cells could treat Parkinson’s?
Stem cells are ‘unspecialised’ cells which can develop into almost any cell in the body. They are found in early embryos, foetuses, umbilical cords and also in some adult tissues.
What makes them so exciting for Parkinson’s research is that they have the potential to grow into new nerve cells that could be used to replace those lost in the Parkinson’s brain.
When will stem cell treatments be available to Parkinson’s patients?
Patients with Parkinson’s disease could have stem cells injected into their brains to replace damaged nerves and restore movement as early as next year, following successful trials at Kyoto University in Japan.
A team of Japanese scientists made the prediction after successfully restoring nerve cells destroyed by a similar condition in primates.
The animals, suffering an artificially induced version of the disease, showed significant improvement two years after having precursor dopamine neurons derived from human stem cells transplanted into their brains.