Parkinson's disease, first described in the early 1800s by British physician James Parkinson as "shaking palsy," is among the most prevalent neurological disorders. According to the United Nations, at least four million people worldwide have it; in North America, estimates run from 500,000 to one million, with about 50,000 diagnosed every year. These figures are expected to double by 2040 as the world's elderly population grows; indeed, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative illnesses common in the elderly (such as Alzheimer's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) are on their way to overtaking cancer as a leading cause of death. But the disease is not entirely one of the aged: 50 percent of patients acquire it after age 60; the other half are affected before then. Furthermore, better diagnosis has made experts increasingly aware that the disorder can attack those younger than 40.
So far researchers and clinicians have found no way to slow, stop or prevent Parkinson's. Although treatments do exist--including drugs and deep-brain stimulation--these therapies alleviate symptoms, not causes. In recent years, however, several promising developments have occurred. In particular, investigators who study the role proteins play have linked miscreant proteins to genetic underpinnings of the disease. Such findings are feeding optimism that fresh angles of attack can be identified.