Parkinson’s disease currently affects over 10 million people worldwide, and in the United States approximately 60,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year. It is a disease in which the brain cells, or neurons, that produce dopamine progressively die off over time. For this reason, it is known as a neurodegenerative disease. As the disease advances, patients gradually experience a worsening of symptoms, including loss of balance and slowness of movement. Ultimately, patients will need constant care as the disease symptoms leave them unable to care for themselves. The total cost of Parkinson’s disease on families, individuals, and the United States government is $51.9 billion per year, with roughly half of that due to direct medical costs. There are currently no treatment options for Parkinson’s disease that can stop or even slow its progression. Rather, existing treatments such as Levodopa aim to alleviate some of the symptoms, primarily through dopamine replacement.
The lack of curative treatments make Parkinson’s disease an important target for the medical research community. Recently, a group of researchers from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia found a potentially effective new treatment that could serve to protect against dopamine neuron death in Parkinson’s disease. The researchers found that patients that received a molecule known as N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) showed significantly improved symptoms. These improvements in symptoms were measured via scores on the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS), which is an assessment of symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease such as walking and balance, tremor, handwriting, etc. Additionally, brain scanning determined that dopamine function improved in patients that received NAC. The type of brain scanning that was used was called DaTscan, which measures a specific type of dopamine biology in the brain, and thus people with Parkinson’s disease will exhibit a smaller signal in their brain where dopamine neurons are meant to be.
N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is converted into glutathione, a natural antioxidant produced in the body. Antioxidants such as glutathione are substances that can prevent or slow damage to the cells in our body. Parkinson’s disease patients appear to have less glutathione in their brains, and the more sick they are, the less glutathione found. However, it is not as simple as giving Parkinson’s patients glutathione supplements. That seems to not be effective because the body doesn’t absorb it well. For this reason, researchers looked into using NAC supplementation instead of glutathione, which has actually been shown through brain scans to increase amounts of glutathione in the brain. In the previously mentioned study, patients were sorted into two groups: one that received normal standard of care treatment, such as treatment with Levodopa, and the other receiving standard of care treatment along with NAC supplementation. After 3 months, the researchers found that the group that received NAC supplementation along with their treatment had much better outcomes.
With these promising results, researchers can now move to larger-scale studies to assess the effectiveness of NAC treatment on Parkinson’s disease patients. Parkinson’s disease research continues to be an area of pressing need, and any treatments that can serve to decrease or delay disease progression would be a welcome finding for the medical community and those affected by the disease.