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An estimated 10 million people worldwide are currently living with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is characterized by a loss of cells in the part of the brain that controls movement, and it is known to be both chronic and progressive. Those diagnosed with Parkinson’s may exhibit a range of symptoms including shaking, slowness of movement, poor balance and coordination, depression, and difficulty sleeping. Parkinson’s may develop for a number of reasons, including inheritance, drug use, head trauma, and age. However, more frequently, Parkinson’s has been found to occur as a result of the interaction between a person’s genes and their environment or due to another disease.

Several studies have been underway to determine which other diseases could be a trigger for the onset of Parkinson’s. In particular, a significant amount of Parkinson’s research has focused on its relationship with both the timing and duration of sleep. In a research project conducted at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, a team led by Dr. Michael Howell made the connection between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder and Parkinson’s. REM sleep behavior disorder occurs when there is a malfunction in the brain stem, which is responsible for paralyzing muscles during sleep. The malfunction of the brain stem causes people to move during REM sleep and often act out their dreams.

 A patient with REM sleep disorder might be in danger of getting a degenerative brain disease called Parkinson’s disease.

Image Source: Colin Anderson

Howell and his colleagues went through over 500 studies regarding REM sleep behavior disorder and Parkinson’s. The team showed that Parkinson’s is associated with the breakdown of alpha-synuclein proteins in neurons that produce dopamine. Similarly, they concluded that REM sleep behavior disorder results from the early stages of this alpha-synuclein breakdown, thus serving as an indication of the onset of Parkinson’s. Howell’s team concluded from the studies that 50% of people diagnosed with REM sleep behavior disorder developed Parkinson’s or a related disorder within a decade of their sleep disorder diagnosis.

The research conducted by Howell’s team predicts that between 81-90% of patients with REM sleep behavior disorder will eventually develop a degenerative brain disorder during their lifetime. Although neither REM sleep behavior disorder nor Parkinson’s disease currently have cures, drug treatments can be used to manage them. While research continues in the realm of developing a cure for Parkinson’s, the link between the two disorders may allow doctors to find a way to detect and treat it in its early stages.

Feature Image Source: Nap by Judit Klein

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