Michael J. Fox Deals with Parkinson's Disease
by Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
December 10, 1998

Actor Michael J. Fox, age 37, has just revealed that he has had Parkinson's disease for the past seven years. The star of the TV show Spin City and of the popular TV show in the 80s, Family Ties, has also been in numerous movies such as Back to the Future and its sequels and Doc Hollywood. It was during the filming of Doc Hollywood that Fox realized something was wrong.

He told People magazine (December 7, 1998, pages 126-136) that he noticed a twitch in his left pinkie, a twitch that within six months spread to his whole hand. A neurologist soon diagnosed the cause as Parkinson's disease.

Fox worked hard to conceal his symptoms from the outside world, and has expressed relief at making his condition known to the public. It was difficult to hide his symptoms as they got worse--tremors would shake his whole arm, or he'd have trouble walking because of muscle stiffness or severe shaking in his legs.

Parkinson's disease afflicts approximately 1 million to 1.5 million people in the U.S., most of them in their 60s or older. It is seen in people of all ethnic groups and among men and women in equal numbers. There is no known cause and no cure, just medicines to help control the symptoms of trembling arms and legs, trouble speaking, and difficulty coordinating movement. The disease can affect younger people. The National Parkinson's Foundation reports that the average age of onset is 55 and less than 5% of the people with Parkinsonís disease are diagnosed before the age 50 years (Van Den Eeden et al., 2003).

Parkinson's disease occurs when neurons degenerate (lose the ability to function normally) in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. Many of these neurons that degenerate contain the neurotransmitter called dopamine. As these neurons degenerate, there is a reduced level of dopamine, and the balance between dopamine and other neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine, is thrown off. This leads to muscles that do not work normally. Muscles may contract and relax, causing shaking called tremors. Or, if the muscles contract but do not relax, that part of the body can become rigid. Injections of dopamine do not fix this deficiency because dopamine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to reach the brain.

Medication helps reduce the shaking, and doctors told Fox he probably has 10 more years of relatively normal life before the symptoms would start interfering with his day-to-day activities. A drug developed in the 1960s called levodopa (L-dopa) was the first drug used to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. It helps boost dopamine in the brain because it can cross the blood-brain barrier. Other drugs block acetylcholine and aim to restore the dopamine-acetylcholine balance. Now there are numerous drugs, many of which are used in combination for a better effect. Unfortunately, many of the drugs become less effective over time. Therefore, as the disease progresses, there are fewer treatment options.

Research has shown that a surgery called thalamotomy helps people with Parkinson's disease regain control over their limbs. The thalamus is an oval shaped structure in the forebrain; it is about 3 cm (1 inch) in length. The thalamus acts as a relay station for sensory information, such as input for touch, hearing, vision, and taste. It also functions in part to interpret this information--is something hot or painful, for example. It also plays a role in voluntary motor actions, such as when a person wants to move a certain muscle (such as lifting an arm).

Fox elected to have this surgery, and had part of his thalamus removed. The surgery took four hours, during which time Fox was awake to help the surgeons. As they located and cauterized (using heat to destroy cells that were misfiring), Fox gave important feedback as to what area of his body was being affected by the work they were doing on his brain. At one point, his speech began to slur, and the surgeons stopped working on that area. The surgery was a success, freeing Fox of his most serious tremors. The surgery has a 90% success rate, although there are risks: paralysis, coma, or death.

Fox has a lot to fight for: a wife of 10 years, Tracy Pollan (also an actor), a nine-year-old son, and three-year-old twin girls.

For more about Michael J. Fox and Parkinson's disease, see:

  1. ABC News Story
  2. CNN Story
  3. Treatments for Parkinson's disease from the Mining Co.
  4. Parkinson's disease links
  5. Van Den Eeden, S.K., et al., Incidence of Parkinson's Disease: Variation by Age, Gender, and Race/Ethnicity, American Journal of Epidemiology, 157:1015-1022, 2003.

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