Life Extension Magazine July 2010
Halt the Stealth Threat of Parkinson’s Disease
By Julius Goepp, MD
Although the exact causes of Parkinson’s disease (PD) continue to elude scientific understanding, the single most important risk factor for its development and progression is well known: aging.1
The first subtle signs can manifest in victims as early as age 50. The risk of onset then follows a steady rise, with incidence increasing dramatically at age 60.2,3 Slowed movement, tremors, mild cognitive impairment, and difficulty standing up or maintaining balance are PD’s harbingers, as the central nervous system commences a profound, irreversible decline. Over time, these early symptoms may progress to near-total immobility, accompanied by mood and personality disorders, loss of sensory function, dementia, and death.4
To date there is no known cure. Fortunately, great strides have been made in research into the prevention and improvement of parkinsonian symptoms without drugs. Natural interventions have been shown to counter aspects of the pathological aging process that accelerate the senescence and death of neurons under attack from PD.5,6
In this article, we detail the underlying physiological mechanisms implicated in Parkinson’s disease, along with a range of safe, low-cost, readily available compounds most Life Extension® members already take that may halt the threat of Parkinson’s before it takes hold.
Parkinson’s victims undergo a progressive, deadly degeneration of the basal ganglia, a compact cluster of neurons in the brain associated with motor control and memory.7 Housed within this structure are the substantia nigra, whose cells release the neurotransmitter dopamine.
The incremental but relentless destruction of these dopaminergic neurons drives the devastation seen in Parkinson’s victims.8 Dopamine plays a central role in a constellation of mental and physical functions, including:
Every one of these functions comes under attack as Parkinson’s disease (PD) kills off successive layers of cortical brain tissue.
Conventional medical treatment understandably aims to elevate and restore optimal dopamine levels. The most common approach is to use a drug such as levodopa, which is converted into dopamine in tissue. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of this conversion actually takes place in the brain, resulting in excessive dopamine levels elsewhere in the body and accounting for troubling side effects, including uncontrolled movements, nausea and vomiting, and depression.5,9
The good news is that the pressing need for a broader array of effective preventive measures, along with additional options to improve quality of life in PD sufferers, has given rise to a steadily growing body of sound research.10,11
Energy Management, Inflammation, and Nerve Damage
The human brain requires enormous blood flow to support its intensive metabolic and neurological activity. Fully one-fifth of the blood pumped with each cardiac contraction goes to the brain. Accordingly, the brain must manage the resulting flow of energy and oxygen with high efficiency or sustain potentially severe oxidative damage generated by excess free radical activity.
As it happens, neuronal tissue is highly vulnerable to free radical damage over time. This is now known to be one of the underlying causes of death for the dopaminergic cells that control movement.7,12,13 A primary contributor to this oxidative stress is mitochondrial insufficiency, the inability of the intra-cellular “furnaces” known as mitochondria to effectively manage energy flow, resulting in an excessive production of oxygen free radicals.8,14
Oxidative damage in turn leads to adverse inflammatory alterations in brain tissue.15,16 The resulting domino effect (oxidative stress = inflammation = additional oxidative stress = more inflammation, and so on) is especially destructive to the vulnerable dopamine-producing cells in the substantia nigra.17
While the inflammatory cascade characteristic of PD appears to be both progressive and inexorable, it is its very complexity that makes it a paradoxically attractive target for prevention. A comprehensive set of interventions has been identified that effectively neutralizes oxidative stress and disrupts inflammatory processes before they spiral out of control. This multi-faceted, multi-factorial approach has generated significant interest in the world of neuroscience today—and a growing body of exciting new research.6,18
Creatine, a nitrogen-bearing organic acid that helps shuttle energy into muscle tissue, is also crucial to overall cellular energy management. Its deficiency in the brain has been associated with nerve damage, leading researchers to explore its neuroprotective effects.19 Several animal models have shown creatine to be effective in preventing or slowing the progression of PD owing to its potent “pro-mitochondrial” biochemical activity.20-22 As a team of influential Harvard neurologists noted in 2007, “Creatine is a critical component in maintaining cellular energy homeostasis, and its administration has been reported to be neuroprotective in a wide number of both acute and chronic experimental models of neurological disease.”23
Results from the first clinical study of creatine in humans were published in 2006 by the Neuroprotective Exploratory Trials in Parkinson’s Disease (NET-PD) team at the prestigious National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).24
They studied 200 subjects who had had a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease within 5 years, but who did not require medication for symptom management. Subjects were randomly assigned to receive creatine 10 grams per day, the drug minocycline 200 mg per day, or placebo for 12 months, while their scores on a standard PD rating scale were monitored.
Both performed well, though creatine showed a substantial edge in performance compared with minocycline. Tolerability of the treatment was 91% in the creatine group and only 77% in the minocycline group. This promising work was followed up in a 2008 study which provided further supportive data on creatine’s exceptional safety and tolerability.25
These findings are especially heartening given that they were derived from studies in aging individuals who already had PD, when much of the progressive damage to dopamine-producing (dopaminergic) cells had already been inflicted. It seems likely that creatine may offer superior benefits when used as a preventive and truly neuroprotective supplement. In the words of British neuroscientist Anthony H. Schapira, “Early dopaminergic support for the degenerating dopaminergic system per se provides significant long-term clinical benefit for PD patients,”22 leading to “a novel concept for neuroprotection, and that is simply to treat early rather than delay.”26
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Given the inflammatory cascade’s intrinsic role in PD, it is natural that scientists would turn to explore the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids. Among their many beneficial characteristics, omega-3s happen to be the molecular precursors of inflammation-fighting substances the body uses in maintaining equilibrium between infection and inflammation. Further, their concentration in nerve cell membranes is known to decrease with age, oxidative stress—and in neurodegenerative disorders such as PD.27,28
Researchers in Norway have presented convincing evidence of systematic omega-3 deficits in PD, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism, indicating a potential therapeutic role.29,30 Supplementation with the omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can favorably modify brain functions and has been proposed as a natural intervention for PD and Alzheimer’s management.31
Japanese scientists have shown that omega-3 treatment of nerve cells in culture prevents neuronal apoptosis, the programmed cell death that occurs in part as the result of inflammatory stimuli in the brain.32 Their work produced dramatically better results when treatment was introduced before the chemical stresses that induced apoptosis were imposed, leading them to conclude that “dietary supplementation with [omega-3s] may be beneficial as a potential means to delay the onset of the diseases and/or their rate of progression.”
Canadian researchers took this work to the next level in a study of mice given omega-3 supplementation before injection with a chemical that produces PD.33 The mice were fed either a control or a high omega-3 diet for 10 months prior to injection. Controls exhibited rapid loss of the dopaminergic cells in the substantia nigra and dramatic decrease of dopamine levels in brain tissue. These effects were prevented entirely in the omega-3 supplemented animals!
Researchers also demonstrated actual changes in PD symptomatology in a study of monkeys.34 In this study, one group of animals was first treated with the PD drug levodopa for several months before being given the omega-3 DHA, while a second group was pre-treated with DHA before being started on levodopa. The researchers’conclusion? “DHA may represent a new approach to improve the quality of life of Parkinson’s disease patients.”34
Summarizing progress in omega-3 prevention of PD in late 2008, a leading nutritional scientist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville concluded, “The literature reveals growing mechanistic evidence that cognitive function of the aging brain can be preserved, or loss of function can be diminished with docosahexaenoic acid, a long-chain omega-3.”35
The strong connection between defects in mitochondrial energy management and its related oxidative stress have led neuroscientists to explore a number of supplemental compounds with energy-enhancing, antioxidant capabilities.36-40 Excellent laboratory and clinical evidence suggests that coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), also known as ubiquinone because of its omnipresence in living cells, is an outstanding contender in this field.41-43 Deficiencies in this vital coenzyme produce disruptions in these processes that can have catastrophic consequences, contributing to many age-related neurodegenerative conditions.10,42,44,45 CoQ10 levels are known to be low in plasma and platelets drawn from patients with PD. A late 2008 study from England demonstrated for the first time that CoQ10 levels are low in vital regions of the brain itself in PD sufferers.39
In 2002, neuroscientists at the University of California-San Diego launched a clinical trial of CoQ10 intervention in early-stage PD sufferers.46 In this multicenter controlled study, 80 patients with early PD, not requiring treatment, were randomly assigned to placebo or to CoQ10 at dosages of 300, 600, or 1,200 mg per day for 16 months or until disability required drug treatment. All subjects were scored on the standard Unified Parkinson Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS), on which higher scores indicate progressively worsening disease.
The results were compelling: placebo patients ended the trial with a mean change (worsening) of 11.99 on the UPDRS score. Low-dose CoQ10 supplemented patients increased by only 8.81, middle-dose patients by 10.82, and high-dose subjects by just 6.69—a significant difference. All doses were well-tolerated. The authors concluded that “Coenzyme Q10 appears to slow the progressive deterioration of function in PD.”46 Two years later the same researchers showed that doses of up to 3,000 mg per day were safe and well-tolerated, though plasma levels reached a plateau at the 2,400 mg per day level.47
With the introduction of the superior ubiquinol form of coenzyme Q10 in 2006, far lower doses may very well provide these same benefits. Ubiquinol CoQ10 absorbs far better into the bloodstream than conventional ubiquinone.48,49
Strong laboratory evidence for high-dose CoQ10 alone or in addition to levodopa therapy came in mid-2008 from a group exploring mitochondrial dysfunction and its role in PD.50 They induced PD in rats by injection of a toxin known to create an accurate model of the disease.
Remarkably, after so much damage was already established, treatment with CoQ10 prevented cell death, restored ATP levels, and improved motor function in treated animals! The most dramatic effects were seen in rats given both levodopa and CoQ10 supplements—the researchers concluded that the “addition of coenzyme Q10 in a high dose in early Parkinson’s disease could be recommended based on its proved disease-modifying role on several levels of the proposed mechanisms, including improvement of respiratory chain activity.”50
Similarly encouraging results were recently reported from neuroscience labs at Cornell University, where researchers tested the effects of various doses of CoQ10 in food, finding significant protection against loss of dopamine.51 The researchers noted that their results “provide further evidence that administration of CoQ10 is a promising therapeutic strategy for the treatment of PD.”
Coenzyme Q10 appears to slow the progressive deterioration of function in Parkinson’s disease.