Cocaine Use and Parkinson’s
Is there a link between heavy cocaine use and Parkinson’s disease?
Robin Williams’ widow dropped a bombshell after his death when she announced that he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s. Until then, we only knew he was suffering from depression. When the media reported that Parkinson’s causes depression – and not just because the person is sad to learn he or she has a disease – that was news to a lot of people, too, including me. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research states this phenomenon in these words: “Depression is a symptom of Parkinson’s disease, separate from the emotional response that comes with a diagnosis.”
But there’s another wrinkle in the story. There’s a possible link between cocaine use and Parkinson’s, and Williams abused cocaine. As far back as 2005, ScienceDaily reported on research conducted at St Jude’s, saying that “adults who abuse cocaine might increase their risk of developing Parkinson’s disease (PD), and pregnant women who abuse cocaine could increase the risk of their children developing PD later in life.” At the time, the researchers believed that there were 2 million cocaine abusers in the U.S.
The article offered a very technical explanation to support their theory–how cocaine disrupts a balance in cells that can lead to Parkinson’s, if you’re interested. Not being a medical writer, I wouldn’t begin to try and explain. The Guardian simplified that explanation in 2005, saying that cocaine makes the brain more susceptible to toxins in the environment.
Dr. William Jacobs, Chief of Addiction Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia and a consultant to Rivermend Health, explains further:
“Cocaine has long been known to be neurotoxic, especially to dopamine neurons and associated with movement disorders. In addition, brain damage is also caused by the cerebral vasoconstriction, cerebrovascular atherosclerosis, cerebrovascular disease and stroke. Mr. William’s tragic death highlights the devastating, long-term effects that addiction has on patients, even if they are able to achieve periods of sobriety.”
And here’s another article, from Science magazine, positing in 2001 that cocaine might well cause the disease or a Parkinsons-like syndrome. Researchers referred to in this article found that cocaine addicts had abnormally high levels of a protein associated with Parkinson’s in their brains. This article mentions them having a dopamine overload, not a deficiency.
These studies are old and it’s time that more research be conducted. I looked on The Michael J. Fox Foundation website to see what research the organization is funding, but it seemed to be mostly for treatments rather than causes. I may be wrong about that, but at a minimum it’s a good place to find out about clinical trials. If more people with Parkinson’s would come forward and admit to earlier cocaine use now that the link between cocaine use and the disease is circulating, perhaps more studies will be done.
Here’s an article in which a neurosurgeon goes on record saying that Williams’cocaine use caused his Parkinson’s (although I’m not crazy about this “news” website because it takes advertising. I’d say most journalists believe a site loses credibility when it seeks money from advertising on its site). Some people also question whether Linda Ronstadt’s use of cocaine in the 1970’s caused her Parkinson’s as well.
To be fair, I also found a study from 1997 published in the American Journal of Addiction that stated adamantly that heavy cocaine use does not cause Parkinson’s. Both chronic cocaine abusers and those who have Parkinson’s suffer from a dopamine deficiency, according to the MEDLINE Abstract that lists the study. But that’s 14 years old.
In a weird twist, HealthDay reported that in the future, cocaine eye drops may be used to diagnose Parkinson’s. Go figure.