Michael J. Fox's Biggest Role: Parkinson's Disease

Michael J. Fox is known for many things. An accomplished actor, he's won awards for his work in "Family Ties," "Spin City," and "The Good Wife." However, Fox's finest achievement—his Grammy, Emmys, and Golden Globe Awards aside—may be his work towards eradicating Parkinson's disease. The actor established The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (MJFF) in 2000, nine years after being diagnosed with the condition. Since sharing his diagnosis with the public in 1998, Fox has spoken out in favor of stem cell research and has worked tirelessly to raise money for research. Fox currently serves as the founder of the organization and sits on the board of directors.

2016 Change Begins Within Benefit Gala
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The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research is dedicated to finding a cure for Parkinson's disease. To date, the foundation has raised over 450 million dollars for Parkinson's research. MJFF also aims to develop better treatments for the under-addressed symptoms of the disease—like constipation, problems swallowing, impulse control, and cognitive decline—as well as the debilitating side effects of current Parkinson's medications.

What Is Parkinson's Disease?

Parkinson's disease affects the central nervous system causing progressive, degenerative symptoms that impair the way the body moves. The hallmark symptom of the condition is tremors, especially in the hands. "Parkinson's" is the overall term for at least six different categories of the disorder, most of which typically affects people over the age of 50. The average age of diagnosis is 62 years old. Approximately one million Americans are currently living with Parkinson's disease.

About 30% of people with Parkinson's are diagnosed before age 50—20% of these people are diagnosed before age 40. When Parkinson's develops before the age of 50, it is known as young-onset Parkinson's. Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed when he was 30 years old, is in this category.

People with Parkinson's disease have a shortage of a chemical that affects movement (called dopamine) in their brains. This is caused by changes in the cells of the substantia nigra, the area of the brain that produces dopamine. How these changes occur remains unknown. Theories include accelerated aging, genetic susceptibility, and environmental factors, among others. Most likely Parkinson's disease is caused by a combination of these things.

Getting Treatment

Treatment of Parkinson's disease has traditionally been with medication that can be made into dopamine in the brain (Sinemet), or by drugs that seem to affect the use of dopamine in the brain (Symmetrel, Eldepryl). Treatment may also include dopamine agonists (Parlodel, Permax, Mirapex, Requip), which activate dopamine-sensitive brain cells.

Surgical treatment options are also available. One of the most common surgical options is deep brain stimulation (DBS). DBS was developed in the 1990s and now is a standard way of treating the condition. While DBS can help treat symptoms, it does not cure the disease nor does it stop it from progressing. Thalamotomy and pallidotomy procedures, which destroy the "trouble-causing" cells in the brain using an electrode, are also available.

1 Source
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  1. Parkinson's Foundation. Young Onset Parkinson's.

Additional Reading

By Mary Kugler, RN
Mary Kugler, RN, is a pediatric nurse whose specialty is caring for children with long-term or severe medical problems.