‘Sleeping Sickness’ Pandemic Offers Insight Into Parkinson’s

A bizarre disease that caused sufferers to fall into a deep ‘sleep’ while still being aware of their surroundings can offer us insight into the nature of Parkinson’s disease.

Dr Paul Foley from Neuroscience Research Australia says the pandemic of encephalitis lethargica, which swept the world in the 1920s, caused Parkinson’s-like symptoms in many sufferers, most of whom were less than 30 years old.

“While we don’t know for sure what caused encephalitis lethargica, there is strong evidence that it was a virus that ultimately caused neurological symptoms to appear many years after the initial infection,” says Dr Foley.

“We can use this as a model to investigate the notion that there may be an infectious involvement in other brain diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, and even Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis,” he says.

Encephalitis lethargica had two distinct phases. During the first, acute phase, victims seemed to fall asleep, but often maintained an awareness of their environment.

“They would close their eyes, and just didn’t have the will power to move themselves,” says Dr Foley. As many as one third of sufferers died during this initial phase.

In the second, chronic phase, which often commenced after a healthy interval of many years, most victims developed incurable neurological symptoms resembling Parkinson’s disease. People in this stage were depicted in Oliver Sacks’ book, ‘Awakenings’.

Dr Foley says his research indicates that around 30% of those who developed chronic symptoms did not experience any acute phase symptoms.

“This suggests that it is possible an infection can have long term consequences for brain function, even where the initial infection is mild or even negligible,” he says.

Dr Foley says that encephalitis lethargica can help us investigate other infections that cause neurological symptoms after a long lag time, and can possibly help us understand the cause of some brain diseases.

“The idea of an infectious involvement in diseases like schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease is controversial today, just as it was in the 1920s,” he says. “But by the end of the 1920s, researchers had built up evidence with regards to encephalitis lethargica to show an infection can have serious psychiatric and neurological outcomes.”

“I’m hoping that putting these facts out there may help researchers piece together the puzzle with regards to other brain diseases,” says Dr Foley.

Dr Foley is currently completing a book on encephalitis lethargica, and will be giving a talk at the Australian Museum on Tuesday, 29th of March 2011, at 7pm.

Source: Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA)

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