To mark World Parkinson’s Day, April 11, we shine a light on this complex neurological condition affecting over 145,000 people in the UK — and over 10 million worldwide —  while sharing some of the groundbreaking research offering hope. 

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder often characterised by tremors, stiffness, slowness of movement, and impaired balance. It’s thought to be the fastest growing neurological condition in the world.

Its impact extends far beyond physical symptoms, however, encompassing a range of cognitive, emotional, and social challenges. Despite affecting millions worldwide, Parkinson’s remains widely misunderstood, underscoring the importance of education and awareness.

Here in 2024, advances in research and technology are transforming the landscape of Parkinson’s care, offering new possibilities for improved quality of life and disease management. From innovative therapies and wearable devices to deep brain stimulation and gene therapy, the future holds promise for all those living with Parkinson’s.

Even in just the past 12 months, a number of exciting developments in Parkinson’s treatment and care have been making headlines across the world.  

Early detection via an eye test 

Researchers hope this new technique could offer a way to pre-screen people who might be at risk of the disease.

Research published in August 2023 revealed a simple eye test can now identify the onset of Parkinson’s disease around seven years before it’s normally diagnosed. Before long it could be available in high street opticians.

“One of the unique things about Parkinson’s is that it affects a particular type of cell in the brain, cells that use a chemical called dopamine, and we actually have cells that use dopamine in the eye as well,” explains Dr Siegfried Wagner, who works at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

Changes detected in the retina can indicate to doctors the presence of Parkinson’s disease. And with developments in AI, the diagnostic potential becomes enormous.

Retinal changes have been mapped to a number of systemic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. (It’s now a field with its own term: ‘oculomics’ — which refers to the blending of big data, artificial intelligence (AI), and ocular imaging to identify retinal biomarkers of systemic disease.)

Dr Siegfried Wagner of Moorfields Eye Hospital.

Wearable pump that delivers an automatic drug infusion

Doctors are hailing a new treatment for Parkinson’s which could help those in the advanced stages of the condition. A new medication can now be delivered automatically into the patient’s system via a 24-hour wearable pump. 

Parkinson‘s patient John Whipps wears the small pump device round his neck, which delivers automatic drug infusion.

The wearable pump works by releasing a combination of medication under the skin into the body. 

The Foslevodopa-foscarbidopa treatment (also called Produodopa) is now being offered in England on the NHS (as of 27 February, 2024), for those people with Parkinson’s who experience movement-related symptoms. Around 900 people are expected to benefit.

For patients like John Whipps, who had been taking up to 20 pills a day, and those who struggle to get up in the night independently when they need to, this is a life-changing development.

The body-worn ‘button’ device

The button can be worn on the chest and controlled by the patient.

A new, tiny device which is worn on the body can — literally, at the press of a button — rapidly reduce some of the condition’s most obvious symptoms. It emits a pattern of vibrations and pulses that control many of the symptoms of the disease, including shaking and tremors.

The technology is still in early testing phase, with more evidence being gathered on the way it works for different patients, through larger clinical trials.

Parkinson’s patient Jeff Crow has found the device has enabled him to interact more with his grandchildren.

Diabetes drugs being investigated as treatment for Parkinson’s

In the last few months, researchers have been sharing findings that indicate diabetes drugs can slow progression of motor symptoms, supporting the theory that Parkinson’s might be associated with insulin resistance in the brain.

Further work is now needed to examine whether the benefits are sustained over time or increase through longer use; what the best dose is; and whether the drug would offer benefits to people at other stages of Parkinson’s.

Advancements in Deep Brain Stimulation technology

Recent innovations in Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) technology include the development of smaller, more precise electrodes, advanced imaging techniques for surgical planning, and adaptive stimulation algorithms that optimise therapy based on real-time feedback.

It’s also being more widely used to help Alzheimers patients, with new wearable technology being tested, in the form of a helmet.

Ongoing work

While significant progress has been made in understanding Parkinson’s and improving treatments, barriers do still persist in access to care, research equity and funding, and societal support.  

In 2021, the charity Parkinson’s UK launched a ‘Race Equality in Research’ project to address the lack of diversity in Parkinson’s research, working with a dedicated steering group to try and improve representation of people from Black, Asian and mixed heritage.

The majority of Parkinson’s research has only included people from white European backgrounds, yet only recently, a new risk factor for Parkinson’s was identified among people of African descent. 

 

8 facts to know about Parkinson’s:

  1. Parkinson’s affects more males than females, with males being up to 1.5 times more likely to have the condition than females;
  2. According to the World Health Organisation, a number of studies show that environmental factors, such as pesticides, air pollution, and industrial chemicals, could increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease;
  3. According to a 2018 review, regular exercise can help prevent Parkinson’s by maintaining a person’s dopamine levels in their brain;
  4. Many researchers believe Parkinson’s results from a combination of both genetic and environmental factors, with genetics a known cause in around 10–15% of all cases;
  5. Neurological disorders are now the leading source of disability globally. Among neurological disorders examined in the Global Burden of Disease, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study, Parkinson’s disease was the fastest growing in prevalence, disability, and deaths;
  6. People with Parkinson’s don’t have enough of the chemical dopamine because some of the nerve cells that make it have ultimately stopped working;
  7. Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease;
  8. Estimates suggest that approximately 5-10% of all cases of Parkinson’s disease are classified as early-onset (where the condition develops before the age of 50).

Explore more on brain health in our programme, Inside Neurology: Our Unique Brain.