Is there a link between Parkinson’s and Brain Injuries?

The medical community has known for years that the effects of a brain injury can be long-lasting and have a significant impact on sufferers. Included in the long list of conditions linked to brain injuries are memory problems, difficulty focusing on tasks, changes in a person’s personality, depression and anxiety. People with the most severe brain injuries can experience dramatic losses in their IQ, physical impairment and seizures.

New research published in JAMA Neurology now suggests that we can add another condition to this long list. People who have experienced certain types of brain injuries have an increased chance of developing Parkinson’s disease, a disorder that affects the nervous system and a person’s ability to control their movement. Muhammad Ali, Michael J. Fox and Janet Reno are a few well-known people who have suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

The study was focused primarily on people who suffered brain injuries that resulted in the loss of consciousness, and the findings were alarming. Those who reported having suffered brain injuries with a loss of consciousness were three-and-a-half times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease later in life. Those who were unconscious for a longer period of time also saw a doubling of the progression of the disorder.

This research did not focus on all types of brain injuries, such as minor traumatic brain injuries (also called concussions), nor did it focus on the repetitive brain injuries that are suffered by football players. Still, the study did not necessarily rule out the possibility that many other types of TBI other than just those that led to unconsciousness might increase a person’s chances of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Researchers are quick to point out that simply because a person experiences a brain injury that results in a loss of consciousness does not always mean that they will develop Parkinson’s disease. However, as Dr. Paul Crane puts it, “It could be that the head injury itself initiates a cascade of effects that ultimately lead to Parkinson disease.”

This study is pointing the way toward even more areas of interest for researchers and medical professionals. Surprisingly, the study did not find a link between these types of head injuries and Alzheimer’s disease, as was long suspected. As a result of this finding, another important implication of the study relates to the way physicians could potentially be misdiagnosing people who are suffering neurodegeneration that results from traumatic brain injuries as having Alzheimer’s disease, rendering such treatments ineffective for those patients.

Roughly one million people in the United States are currently suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The condition is progressive, meaning that it gets worse over time. While some treatments have been shown to be effective in slowing the progression of Parkinson’s in some patients, there is no cure for the disorder.

Every year, over one million people suffer from traumatic brain injuries, often as the result of falls, vehicle accidents, assaults or sports-related and recreational activities. In some cases, these injuries can lead to paralysis or death. While the medical community waits for more findings to come forth from this study and more like it, the rest of us are hoping that there will be a greater understanding of how injuries and disorders affect our brains, and what can be done to help those in need of treatment.