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A Look At Parkinson's As Michael J. Fox Returns To TV

It’s been 22 years since Michael J. Fox was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease — and 15 years since he famously told Barbara Walters that he would be cured of Parkinson’s before his 50th birthday.

That didn’t happen, but neither did his doctor’s stated expectation that he would have only about 10 more years to work in television.

Fox makes his return to television tonight — no longer trying hide his Parkinson’s symptoms, as he did during his six years on “Spin City.”

That’s because “The Michael J. Fox Show” revolves around a TV anchor named Mike Henry who returns to the air after being sidelined for half a decade by the illness.

Fox’s return to television comes as singer Linda Ronstadt reveals in her new memoir “Simple Dreams“  that undiagnosed Parkinson’s created voice changes that have prevented her from singing for the past few years, and now leave her reliant on two canes to navigate her daily activities.

Fox and Ronstadt are among about a million Americans who suffer from Parkinson’s, which strikes with a wide range of symptoms and can look very different from individual to individual.

Dr. Paul Tuite, director of the Movement Disorders Center at the University of Minnesota, joins Here & Now to explain the latest research and treatments.

Interview Highlights: Dr. Paul Tuite

On how Parkinson’s affects people differently

“It is quite variable, it’s different for each person. But we also add, there can be some features that occur years before the motor signs of Parkinson’s disease. So some people may notice loss of smell five to 10 years before they develop tremor or stiffness. They may also have sleep problems, where in the Michael J. Fox program tonight, he alluded to that, where the person may talk in their sleep or have funny dream-like behaviors and act a dream. So those are things that people who are out there who are listening to the program, if they’re experiencing these things, they should bring them up with their physician.”

On the latest Parkinson’s treatment

“The gold standard for Parkinson’s disease remains Levodopa. It’s a precursor to dopamine, so the brain cells that make dopamine use that drug to help them make dopamine. And that’s been around since the 60s. Since that time, in the 80s and 90s, we’ve had dopamine lookalike drugs like Pramipexole, Ropinirole, a patch Rotigotine — so those can augment the brain’s dopamine signaling. The Fox Foundation’s funding studies related to nicotine patches that may help symptoms; caffeine derivatives that are being used in clinical trials. A lot of these therapies however focus primarily on alleviating symptoms — we have yet to acquire a drug that modifies the course of disease.”

On the pursuit of Parkinson’s biomarkers

“The Michael J Fox Foundation is funding a study that we’re part of to look at blood and spinal fluid of people who have Parkinson’s and people who don’t have Parkinson’s — a health control. So the objective is to find some type of a protein or abnormality in blood or spinal fluid that may help diagnose Parkinson’s, track the response to treatment, predict the course of the condition.”

Progress on the Parkinson’s front

“We’re now beginning to map the topography of the disease using MRI, using animal models of disease. We know that synuclein is an important protein that is abnormally accumulated in Parkinson’s disease. It spreads slowly in different regions of the brain and due to the real estate that’s affected, symptoms result. So if you have certain areas related to motor function, those areas of the brain are affected. Cognitive areas, smell areas, we can find the disease in salivary glands that relate to drooling that some patients have with Parkinson’s. You can find changes in the gut that relate to constipation that patients experience.”


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Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease 22 years ago. The Michael J. Fox Foundation helps to fund Parkinson's Disease research (Michael J Fox Foundation)
Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease 22 years ago. The Michael J. Fox Foundation helps to fund Parkinson's Disease research (Michael J Fox Foundation)