Blogging with Parkinson's

A personal perspective on Young Onset Parkinson's


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Morality and Parkinson’s

I recently had cause to take a good hard look at my own behaviour, and the way in which I was reacting to other people.

It’s difficult to accept that you might be selfish or careless of other people’s feelings. It’s also far too easy to blame it on an illness – or the drugs used to treat that illness – especially if you are aware that this is a possibility.

Which it is…

In July 2015, a study was published that suggested levadopa (the most prevalent treatment for Parkinson’s, and the key ingredient in the Sinemet that I take) made healthy subjects more selfish. The same study also looked at an¬†antidepressant drug that increased serotonin levels, and that drug was found to make people more caring.

To my mind, the study was based on a simplistic and fairly extreme premise, probably out of necessity – morality is difficult to measure. The study used the choice to deliver a painful but not intolerable electric shock to either oneself or another person (not present in the same room). In both cases, cash could be paid to prevent the shock. The amount that people were prepared to pay to avoid harming themself, and to avoid harming another, was monitored and compared. The findings can be summarised as follows:

  • those whose serotonin levels were increased were willing to pay significantly more to avoid harm to another than to avoid harming themselves
  • those whose brain chemistry was unchanged (because they took a placebo) would still pay more to avoid harm to others, but not as much as the increased-serotonin group
  • those whose dopamine levels were increased paid equal amounts to avoid harm to others and to avoid harm to themselves

I would like to think that, even with levadopa, my judgement would err towards the altruistic avoidance of harm to another. And perhaps it would – the results were, after all, averages. However, I have never, to my recollection, found myself in that sort of situation.

But what if the situation was more subtle? If it were more a matter of insensitivity, not paying full attention to what others were doing, increased focus on the self? If it were a matter of taking opportunities without paying heed to the limited nature of the opportunities and to other’s desires to take the same opportunities? I think I have been guilty of these things. I’m not sure that it is entirely down to drugs, either; at least some of it is inherent in my personality (I know that I am quite good at some things, and I also know that I can come across as patronising or condescending as a result of the first knowing without meaning to; I try to guard against this tendency, but I do not always succeed). At least some of it must be due to Parkinson’s itself – the difficulties in doing things that didn’t ought to be difficult, that didn’t used to be difficult, and the self-awareness that comes with the process of constant adjustment (because the effects of Parkinson’s vary from day to day, from hour to hour, and gradually become more frustrating over weeks and months). And another part, again, is a result of the knowledge that, because I have Parkinson’s, my timescales are reduced.

Interestingly, I have recently started taking an antidepressant called mirtazapine. This is not the same drug that was used in the study (that was citalopram); it is described as “an atypical antidepressant” because it only targets one type of serotonin receptor in the brain. But it does still increase serotonin levels.

I take mirtazapine to counteract the excessive wakefulness that sinemet causes (that is, it helps me sleep). Might it also go some way to counteract the apparent selfishness that sinemet causes?

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Two-Faced Dopamine, and the Difference Between Wanting and Liking

This video, which a friend pointed out to me on the Guardian’s Web site, is quite intriguing. Its direct relevance to Parkinson’s is minimal, but it does discuss the role of dopamine in the brain and the psychological and sociological results of an excess thereof. Too much dopamine is, of course, precisely the opposite problem to that posed by Parkinson’s. Continue reading


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Human dopamine neurons with Parkin mutation grown in laboratory

Image nabbed from http://neuralwiki.org and slightly altered. File originated from Wikimedia Commons.

A petri dish, often used in laboratories to grow things in vitro (literally, "in glass").

The BBC have a text article on this development. You can read it here. Basically, scientists in the US have managed to generate dopamine neurons in culture – and not just any old dopamine neurons, either. These are a mutated type that occur in some genetic forms of Parkinson’s Disease. The process involved skin cells collected from patients with the parkin mutation; the skin cells were induced to grow into the required neurons using recently developed stem cell technology.

“This is the first time that human dopamine neurons have ever been generated from Parkinson’s disease patients with parkin mutations,” said Dr Jian Feng who led the investigations.

“Before this, we didn’t even think about being able to study the disease in human neurons.

“The brain is so fully integrated. It’s impossible to obtain live human neurons to study.”

– from the BBC article

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Multi-Tasking, Dopamine, Tiredness and Marie Claire

I don’t usually pay much heed to what fashion magazines say, but flicking through the pages of November’s edition of Marie Claire (bought partly because the free tube of hand cream on the front reminded me of a tube of paint), I came across a snippet that neatly drew together a few things I’ve heard and read elsewhere.

5.TOO MUCH MULTITASKING
[…]
Simultaneously reading your email, chatting on the phone and doing bottom firming exercises at your desk isn’t necessarily productive. ‘Multitasking overstimulates the dopamine system,’ says Professor Paul Gilbert, consultant psychologist and author of The Compassionate Mind […]. ‘Dopamine is a chemical linked to rewards, drive and vitality and is easily depleted. When stores are low, this can lead to listlessness and depression,’ he explains. Professor Gilbert suggests balancing dopamine release by stimulating your endorphin system – the positive emotional pathway in the brain responsible for well-being. Try gentle activities such as gardening, hiking or meditation.

from “12 Reasons You’re Tired All The Time,” by Anna Magee, Marie Claire, November 2011

Potatoes. Harvested.

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