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Health

New treatments, but no cure, available for Parkinson's

Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox  

November 25, 1998
Web posted at: 10:05 p.m. EST (0305 GMT)

From Medical Correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Michael J. Fox is the latest public figure to acknowledge that he has Parkinson's disease, joining a list that includes the Rev. Billy Graham, Attorney General Janet Reno and former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

The disease, which affects about 1 million people in the United States, typically strikes the elderly. But the government estimates that as many as 10 percent of cases are in people under 40. Fox is 37.

Parkinson's is a degenerative disease, striking brain cells that produce dopamine -- a chemical messenger that helps direct muscle activity.

In patients with Parkinson's, the dopamine process is disabled, resulting in muscle tremors, stiffness, slow movement and problems with balance.

Symptoms usually start with mild tremors in a hand or limb. Later, the disease can affect both sides of the body, causing more severe tremors and a shuffled, unbalanced walk. Everyday activities, such as washing and dressing, gradually become more difficult.

There is no cure for Parkinson's disease. The most effective treatment is a drug called levodopa. The drug works by helping the brain replace missing dopamine, which in turn helps control symptoms. However, after five to 10 years of treatment, the drug becomes less effective.

Fox reportedly takes a form of levodopa called Sinemet, and his publicist confirmed an upcoming People magazine report that the actor underwent brain surgery to treat the disease.

Fox had what doctors call a cryothalamotomy, a procedure that destroys nerve cells from the thalamus that are involved in tremors.

Another surgical procedure called pallidotomy is showing promise. While the patient is awake, surgeons use a tiny probe to destroy the part of the brain causing the erratic tremors.

It is not known whether Fox and the other Parkinson's patients who have had operations will need further surgery. But until there is a cure, it is likely the disease will continue to progress.

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