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Parkinson's Disease Health Center

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Human Genome Research Implicates Genes in Parkinson's

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Nov. 13, 2001 -- It has long been suspected that genetic predisposition plays a role in a rare form of Parkinson's disease that occurs in young people. New research not only confirms that this is true, but for the first time identifies genes linked to the more common form of the devastating neurologic disorder that generally strikes late in life.

The findings provide strong evidence that Parkinson's disease has an important genetic component and is not caused by environmental factors alone, say researchers from Duke University Medical Center. They identified several genetic mutations that appear to be related to Parkinson's disease susceptibility, and say other, as yet unidentified, genes are probably involved. Their report appears in the Nov. 14 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This is the first step in trying to unravel what is a very complicated web of cause and effect," study leader William K. Scott, PhD, of Duke's Center for Human Genetics, tells WebMD. "For the first time, we have solid evidence that genetic factors are involved with the common form of Parkinson's. These factors probably interact with each other and the environment."

If future studies further clarify the role of genes in the development of Parkinson's disease, it is hoped this will lead to better treatments and better ways of identifying who is at risk for the disease. Approximately 1 million people in the United States have the neurodegenerative condition, which is characterized by tremors at rest, slowness, and a particular type of muscular rigidity. Actor Michael J. Fox, diagnosed at age 30, has the less common form of the disease, known as early-onset or young-onset Parkinson's.

Studies have long suggested that environmental factors such as pesticide exposure play an important causal role in Parkinson's. While this may be the case, the Duke findings challenge previous studies concluding that these factors are the primary cause of the disease.

Working with 16 institutions in the United States and Australia, the Duke team conducted complete genomic screenings of almost 900 people who either had Parkinson's or had two or more afflicted family members.

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