Dopamine has been implicated as a major influencer of many behaviors and physical functions, including love, motivation, reward, pleasure, sleep, addiction, reproductive function, inflammation and pain, and immune function. It also plays a key role in initiating movement in the body.
Because of this, dopamine is largely regarded as a major contributor to Parkinson’s disease, a disease known to cause tremors, bradykinesia (slowed movement), muscle rigidity, and postural instability.
In this article, we will discuss the connection between Parkinson’s disease and dopamine, dopamine’s role in diagnosis, how to boost dopamine levels, and the future of Parkinson’s disease diagnosis.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that is most commonly known for affecting function and movement, though it also affects cognition, particularly as the disease progresses. Parkinson’s disease primarily impacts dopaminergic, or dopamine-producing, neurons in a specific area of the brain known as the substantia nigra. Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter that transmits signals between neurons and plays a key role in movement and motor control.
The lack of dopamine makes it difficult for the brain to coordinate muscle movements and can also contribute to mood and cognitive issues later in the disease course. Patients with Parkinson’s disease also lose nerve endings that produce norepinephrine, a chemical messenger of the sympathetic nervous system responsible for controlling a wide range of functions in the body, such as blood pressure and heart rate.
Although dopamine has been the primary neurotransmitter of focus—and is so far the most significant—Parkinson’s disease affects several chemical systems in the brain. The lack of dopamine causes several downstream effects on other neurotransmitters, such as Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) and glutamate.
Typically, Parkinson’s disease is diagnosed “clinically,” meaning diagnosis is dependent on medical history, answers to certain questions, physical examination, and the presence of specific physical symptoms. There are no lab or imaging tests that can definitively diagnose Parkinson’s disease; however, there are several helpful imaging tools that can be used to analyze brain function and support Parkinson’s disease diagnosis:
A large part of Parkinson’s disease treatment revolves around increasing dopamine levels in the brain—whether through dopamine-creating drugs, dopamine agonists, MAO B inhibitors, or lifestyle changes. Certain lifestyle changes can be incorporated to support brain health and promote dopamine production. Here is what experts recommend:
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