What is Parkinson’s? Causes, symptoms, and treatments

A doctor first noticed Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Parkinson’s mask’ while watching University Challenge  (Joseph Scanlon/ITV)
A doctor first noticed Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Parkinson’s mask’ while watching University Challenge (Joseph Scanlon/ITV)

A doctor who had been watching Jeremy Paxman host University Challenge thought he had Parkinson’s disease before the presenter visited hospital and was diagnosed.

The 72-year-old veteran broadcaster revealed that he would be stepping down from three decades of hosting University Challenge after he learned that he had the neurological disease.

Paxman was diagnosed when he visited hospital after he had had a fall with his dog.

“When I was in A&E, a doctor walked in and said: ‘I think you’ve got Parkinson’s,” he said.

“And it turned out that he had been watching University Challenge and had noticed that my face had acquired what’s known as the Parkinson’s mask.

“I wasn’t as effusive and exuberant as normal. I had no idea.”

But what is Parkinson’s disease, what are the symptoms, and how is it treated? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a condition that causes parts of the brain to become progressively damaged over many years.

It’s a neurological disorder that affects the brain and nervous system, impacting movement, and causing motor symptoms, such as tremors, stiffness, and loss of balance.

Neurological diseases are conditions that affect the brain, spine, or nervous system and they may cause symptoms that are physical, psychological, or both.

The disease causes changes to the basal ganglia, nerve cells that usually produce dopamine, an important chemical messenger.

What causes Parkinson’s disease?

Although the exact causes of Parkinson’s are unknown, there are a number of possible causes. These include:

  • The death of dopamine-secreting neurons in the brain, with the exact cause of this damage is still unknown.

  • Environment and genetics.

  • Certain medications, toxins, and other diseases can produce symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease, known as secondary Parkinsonism, which can be reversible.

What are the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?

The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are usually gradual at first, but there are many to be aware of.

The three main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease affect physical movement:

  • Tremor – Shaking, which usually begins in the hand or arm, and is more pronounced when the limb is resting.

  • Slowness of movement (bradykinesia) – Physical movements are much slower than normal, which can make everyday tasks difficult and results in a slow, shuffling walk and very small steps.

  • Muscle stiffness (rigidity) – Stiffness and tension in the muscles can make it difficult to move around and make facial expressions.

These symptoms can be caused by other issues, and are referred to by doctors as Parkinsonism.

How is Parkinson’s disease treated?

Drug therapy is the main treatment for Parkinson’s disease, and many people can maintain a good standard of life with the correct medication.

The main aim of drug therapy for Parkinson’s disease is to increase the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, as low dopamine levels are a characteristic marker of Parkinson’s and are responsible for the motor symptoms of the condition.

In addition, there might be other medications prescribed to increase the levels of other neurotransmitters in the brain that play a role in Parkinson’s, in order to treat other behavioural symptoms and non-motor symptoms.

These drugs include:

  • Levodopa and Carbidopa

  • Dopamine Agonists

  • COMT Inhibitors

  • MAO-B Inhibitors

  • Anticholinergics

  • Amantadine