About 10-20% of people with Parkinson's are diagnosed before age 50; only half of these people are diagnosed before age 40. This is called juvenile Parkinson's. Michael J. Fox, diagnosed at age 30 years old in 1991, is in this category.
People with Parkinson's disease have a shortage of a chemical that affects movement (called dopamine) in their brains. It appears that changes in the cells of the substantia nigra, the area of the brain that produces dopamine, are at fault. How these changes happen is not precisely known; theories include accelerated aging, genetic susceptibility, and environmental factors, among others. Most likely Parkinson's disease is caused by a combination of these things.
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). Newer drugs, called dopamine agonists (Parlodel, Permax, Mirapex, Requip), activate dopamine-sensitive brain cells.
One technique being investigated is high-frequency stimulation of a part of the brain called the subthalamic nucleus. This is known as deep brain stimulation. Brain tissue transplants using genetically-altered cells, fetal tissue, or pig tissue introduce cells to produce dopamine. New techniques for thalamotomy and pallidotomy, which destroy the "trouble-causing" cells in the brain using an electrode, are being developed.
Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox has established The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. He has spoken out in favor of stem cell research and has worked tirelessly to raise money for research. The Foundation Web site states, "Fox wholeheartedly believes that if there is a concentrated effort from the Parkinson's community, elected representatives in Washington, DC, and (most importantly) the general public, researchers can pinpoint the cause of Parkinson's and uncover a cure by 2010."