The tremors, slowed movements, rigidity, and other symptoms of Parkinson's disease (PD) can be modified to some degree with medication, therapy, and surgeries, such as deep brain stimulation.

At this time, there is no cure for PD and most people notice progression over time. Researchers are hard at work, however, trying to understand the genetic and environmental factors that play a role in the development of the disease, and come up with new treatments that will slow down or prevent the onset of symptoms.

What We Know About Parkinson's Disease

PD likely results from a complex combination of genetic and environmental risk factors. For example, you may possess a known genetic risk, but never manifest the disease if the environmental factor doesn't come into play. There are many variables in this respect, and many unpredictable outcomes. PD affects different people in different ways and progresses at different rates, so treatment must be individualized.

What Researchers Hope to Find Out About Parkinson's Disease

Many questions remain unanswered in regards to PD. One uncertainty under investigation is determining who is likely to get which subtype of Parkinson's, and how best to modify disease progression with individualized treatment plans. With that in mind, the Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) was developed to discover biomarkers—different levels of specific proteins found in the spinal fluid of people with PD, for example—that will indicate a patient's stage of disease and monitor advancement. The ultimate goal, once these biomarkers are determined, is to delay or slow down the progression of PD and one day prevent it altogether.

"This is an exciting time for Parkinson's disease research," says Patrick Hickey, DO, medical instructor in the Division of Neurology at Duke University School of Medicine. "The information gained from unique investigations, such as PPMI, should add to our understanding of risks and progression, and aid in the development of novel treatments."

Current (and Future) Treatments for Parkinson's Disease

Levodopa remains the most beneficial medication to control the symptoms of PD, Hickey says, though excellent research is underway on how to optimize its delivery to the brain. This includes pumps that infuse a gel formulation and those that utilized a novel transporter within the intestine.

Stem cell therapy has the potential as a neurorestorative therapy, though more work is needed to better understand which cells are optimal for implantation and how best to deliver them.

Researchers are also working on a PD vaccine that consists of four injections to clear proteins that clump in the brain and spread as the disease progresses.

Although much of the current research is focused on diagnosis and medical treatment of PD, the results of some recent studies may have a more immediate effect on the day-to-day lives of anyone living with the disease right now. For instance, scientists have found that caffeine has the potential to improve both motor and non-motor symptoms. Other studies indicate that Parkinson's patients who regularly see a neurologist as part of their care team have fewer hospitalizations and improved overall survival rates than those who do not routinely see a neurologist on an outpatient basis.

Patrick Hickey, DO, reviewed this article. 



International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society.

National Parkinson Foundation.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Prediger, RD "Effects of Caffeine in Parkinson's Disease: From Neuroprotection to the Management of Motor and Non-Motor Symptoms."  J Alzheimers Dis. 2010;20 Suppl 1:S205-220.