Unusual early signs of Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is considered a neurodegenerative disease because it mainly affects dopamine-producing neurons in the substantia nigra, an area of the brain that helps control the body’s movements.

That’s why when people think of Parkinson’s symptoms, they usually picture shaky hands and stiff, jerky limb movements. But often these symptoms don’t manifest until years after the onset of the illness.

But in working to identify the earliest signs of Parkinson’s — researchers are finding that some signs appearing years before an official diagnosis is made are, surprisingly, not neurological in nature…

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Some unusual signs of early Parkinson’s

During their research, scientists analyzed German outpatient health insurance records from 2011 to 2020. They separated the records into two groups: patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s and a control group that was Parkinson’s-free. Each patient was tracked for an average of 6 years.

As expected, when comparing the two groups, the patients with Parkinson’s were much more likely to have known Parkinson’s signs such as tremors, restless legs syndrome, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. And these symptoms occurred anywhere up to 10 years before their official disease diagnosis.

But some surprising connections surfaced during the study — non-neurological signs of Parkinson’s that may emerge as many as 6 years before diagnosis…

Changes in skin sensation and associations with inflammatory skin conditions: According to the researchers, the early presentation of patients with Parkinson’s disease with skin disorders may reflect early deposits of alpha-synuclein in the skin, inflammatory disposition, and perceptual changes early in the disease process. Links also emerged with inflammatory skin conditions, seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis.

Some patients also experienced seronegative osteoarthritis — also an inflammatory condition.

Diabetes: A new relationship discovered was with type 1 diabetes, which has never been previously reported as a risk factor in patients with Parkinson’s disease or before diagnosis. Type 2 diabetes was also linked to Parkinson’s, solidifying an association seen in previous research.

Gastrointestinal conditions: Gastroesophageal reflux and gastritis, were found to be more prevalent in those who received a Parkinson’s diagnosis later on.

Previous studies have found other unexpected early signs of Parkinson’s including depression, loss of smell, dizziness, fatigue, pain and rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder, a condition where you flail or kick in your sleep, and a link between metabolic syndrome and Parkinson’s.

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More than a neurological disease?

These odd combinations of symptoms may have a lot to do with findings in the scientific community that Parkinson’s is both a neurological and autoimmune disease.

Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition and some believe seborrheic dermatitis may be as well. Type 1 diabetes is considered an organ-specific autoimmune disease caused by the autoimmune response against pancreatic β cells.

Information found at the LaJolla Institute for Immunology reveals that in a 2020 study, the LJI team shed light on the timeline of T cell reactivity and Parkinson’s disease progression. T cells are part of the immune system meant to attack foreign invaders, but play a role in the pathogenesis of autoimmune conditions when they begin attacking the body.

They found that the T cells that react to alpha-synuclein (a protein that collects in clumps in Parkinson’s patients) are abundant when patients are first diagnosed with the disease. But these T cells tend to disappear as the disease progresses, and few patients still have them ten years after diagnosis. This research shows that signs of autoimmunity can appear in Parkinson’s disease patients years before an official diagnosis.

This may also help explain the involvement of inflammatory and gut-related conditions as well. Even though inflammatory bowel disease isn’t technically an autoimmune condition, it is caused by an abnormal immune response.

While there’s no way to prevent Parkinson’s, there may ways to reduce the risk…

  • Research shows that people exposed to high levels of pesticides have a higher Parkinson’s risk.
  • Research shows that people who exercise in their 30s and 40s have a 30 percent lower risk of getting the disease. 
  • People who eat more peppers have a lower risk of the disease. Other foods with a proven ability to lower Parkinson’s risk include berries, apples, oranges, fish and green tea.
  • Some vitamins and nutrients have shown to be helpful, especially those in foods that help douse inflammation.

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Early Signs of Parkinson’s May Be Seen Years Before Diagnosis — MedPage Today

Widening the Spectrum of Risk Factors, Comorbidities, and Prodromal Features of Parkinson Disease — JAMA Neurology

What is Parkinson’s? — Parkinson’s Foundation

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.