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What to Know About Dopamine Agonists for Parkinson's Disease

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on December 10, 2021

Parkinson’s disease can cause many symptoms that affect daily life, but dopamine agonist medication can reduce the effects of Parkinson’s disease for many years.

What Is Parkinson's Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is an illness in the brain that affects many different parts of the body. 

Your brain has different areas that deal with separate body parts. Cells in these brain areas are called neurons.

Neurons send electrical signals to each other to direct your body. Signals between neurons tell your body to move, make you feel pain and other sensations, manage your breathing, and perform many more needed functions.

Chemicals called neurotransmitters help these electrical signals travel between neurons throughout the brain. For example, dopamine is a chemical that plays a role in movement, motivation, and other behaviors.

The part of the brain that helps with movement and produces dopamine is called the basal ganglia. In cases of Parkinson’s disease, cells in this area of the brain become damaged and produce less dopamine and other important neurotransmitters. This can cause problems with moving, thinking, and other functions.

Parkinson’s disease isn’t contagious. It usually appears in people around age 60 and older. People as young as their early twenties can get diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, though.

What Causes Parkinson’s Disease?

Scientists aren’t sure what causes Parkinson’s disease. It doesn’t seem to run in families. Exposure to chemicals, stress, and other toxins throughout life may lead to Parkinson’s disease. Each person’s unique genetic code also plays a role.

What Are the Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?

Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can include:

People with Parkinson’s disease often show minor symptoms at first. The symptoms may begin on only one side of the body. Symptoms often become more pronounced over time.

Parkinson’s disease itself isn’t fatal, but it has no cure. Symptoms like frequent falling can lead to injury and death.

What Are Dopamine Agonists?

An agonist is a type of drug that imitates another drug or chemical inside the body. Dopamine agonist drugs don’t involve any actual dopamine. Their chemical makeup is similar enough to create the same type of brain activity as dopamine, though.  

How Do Dopamine Agonists Treat Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease involves a lack of dopamine in the brain. Many Parkinson’s drugs aim to create more of the same brain activity as dopamine.

Non-agonist drugs turn directly into dopamine inside the brain instead of mimicking dopamine. The most common non-agonist drugs for Parkinson’s disease are levidopa and carbidopa.

Dopamine agonists don’t reverse the damage from Parkinson’s disease in the brain. They just reduce many of its symptoms. A doctor can prescribe a dopamine agonist on its own or with another medication like levodopa.

A doctor will most likely prescribe one of the following medications:

  • Pramiprexole (Mirapex) pills
  • Ropinirole (Requip) pills
  • Apomorphine hydrochloride injection (Apokyn)
  • Apomorphine hydrochloride under-the-tongue dissolving film (Kynmobi)
  • Rotigotine skin patch (Neupro)

What Are the Benefits of Dopamine Agonists for Parkinson’s Disease?

Dopamine agonist effects can make life easier for people with Parkinson’s disease by treating symptoms. They can reduce movement problems like trembling hands, slow walking, and stiff limbs. Other benefits of dopamine agonists for Parkinson’s disease include:

Fewer side effects. Levodopa can cause uncontrollable body movements over time. Dopamine agonists are less likely to cause this.

Dopamine agonists are helpful on their own during the early years of Parkinson’s disease when symptoms may not be severe. People diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease early in life may start out taking only dopamine agonists. This can reduce the amount of uncontrollable movement that comes with taking levodopa for a long time.

No dietary restrictions. Medications like levodopa can be less potent if you’re eating lots of foods that are high in protein. Your body absorbs dopamine agonists in a different way, though, that doesn’t interfere with your diet.

They can help levodopa be more effective. Levodopa or other medications for Parkinson’s disease can wear off before it’s time for another dose. Dopamine agonists last longer and help manage symptoms when taken alongside levodopa.

Limits of Dopamine Agonists

They’re not as potent. Levodopa is stronger and usually more helpful for people with severe symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. These patients may still take dopamine agonists along with levodopa.

Dopamine agonists’ side effects. Dopamine agonists can cause many side effects. These may include:

Dopamine agonists can also cause mood changes and more impulsive behavior. This can look like:

  • Gambling
  • Heightened sexual desire and activity
  • Addiction to shopping
  • Overeating

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Parkinson Disease Association: "Dyskinesia," "Early Onset Parkinson’s Disease."

Hopkins Medicine: "Dopamine Drugs and Possible Side Effects."

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research: "Medications for Motor Symptoms."

National Institute on Aging: "Parkinson's Disease."

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Brain Basics: The Life and Death of a Neuron."

NICE: "Parkinson’s disease in adults."

Parkinson's Foundation: "Dopamine Agonists, "Genetics and Parkinson’s."

Parkinson’s UK: "Dopamine Agonists (Pramiprexole, Ropinirole.)"

SimplyPsychology: "Neurotransmitters: Types, Function and Examples."

University of Michigan Health: "13 Medications to Control Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms."

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