Parkinson's Disease is one of the most dreaded old-age illnesses. Its cause is a sudden stop in the body's production of certain brain cells. Physically, the disease is characterized by a loss of fine motor control that eventually becomes uncontrollable tremors. Mentally, it leads to dementia, often with depression because so far, scientists have no idea what stops the production of those cells or how to cure the disease.
A diagnosis of Parkinson's is often nothing more than a prolonged death sentence.
So when New Zealand native Andrew Johnson was diagnosed with Parkinson's four years ago at the young age of 35, you might expect him to lose hope in his future. Doctors can only prescribe drugs that help stave off tremors, but even these aren't foolproof. And getting it at 35 (when Parkinson's usually affects those older than 50) seems like absolutely terrible luck.
But Johnson is different from the cases of Parkinson's that came before him. That's because he's undergone a new operation called Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) that has eliminated any motor symptoms that he was suffering from.
Twice, last November and this February, Johnson underwent DBS, implanting two electrodes in his brain where the dying brain cells were formerly located. These probes regularly emit slight electronic signals, mimicking the effect of the brain cells on his motor functions. Johnson's hand tremors are completely and entirely gone, and he has no physical signs of Parkinson's whatsoever.
Johnson's story serves as an incredibly hopeful message to the tens of thousands of people who suffer from Parkinson's the world over. Long before the disease manifests mentally, its physical expression takes a terrible toll on sufferers, who often cannot write or type and have a hard time performing daily tasks or finding suitable employment. And, unlike some other drugs used to alleviate Parkinson's symptoms, there are virtually no side effects to DBS at all. For once, those with Parkinson's have reason to optimistic.
There are still, of course, kinks to work out with DBS. Johnson has learned the hard way that the probes can accidentally be turned off by external stimuli, like airport scanners. And DBS is by no means a cure. The treatment is the most effective of the limited options that Parkinson's sufferers have, but it does not slow down or stop the progression of the disease. It just masks some of the physical symptoms. Eventually, as the disease worsens, Johnson will begin feeling the impact. Hopefully, that day is years from now.
For his part, Johnson has started a blog, called Young and Shaky, that gives him an outlet to tell his own story while promoting research for a cure. He acknowledges that the cure is a while away, but he's still optimistic because, he says from experience, "modern science is fucking awesome."