What Is Dopamine and How Is It Connected to Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder. It causes issues like tremor, muscle stiffness, and slow movements. It affects nearly 1 million people in the United States, and the incidence is rising.

Parkinson’s disease isn’t fully understood. There isn’t a known cure, and diagnostic tests can’t definitively determine whether a person has it. But researchers do know a fair amount about the the role that dopamine plays in its development.

In this article, we’ll discuss what dopamine is and how it’s connected to Parkinson’s disease. You’ll also learn about treatment options that improve dopamine levels and ways you can boost dopamine naturally.

Dopamine is a type of brain chemical known as a neurotransmitter. This means dopamine is responsible for helping move electrical signals through the brain. It’s produced in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra.

Dopamine is responsible for the smooth, controlled movements that are typical for people without a movement disorder. Dopamine also plays a role in the body’s motivation and reward mechanism. When you do something good or pleasurable, your brain is flooded with dopamine, which encourages you to take the action again.

Your body is capable of producing all the dopamine it needs. It can get the building blocks from the foods you eat and the activities you do. In people with Parkinson’s disease, dopamine levels drop, and the brain doesn’t have enough of the neurotransmitter to do the important work of sending electrical impulses through the brain and central nervous system.

For people with Parkinson’s disease, dopamine levels are too low. As the dopamine starts to fall, signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease will begin to reveal themselves. That means the smooth, controlled body movements may be replaced by symptoms like tremor or stiffness in limbs. Fluid motions may become slow, shaky, and halted.

Dopamine levels may be significantly reduced by the time these symptoms are noticeable. Some of the earliest signs of Parkinson’s disease aren’t as obvious, and they may occur years before the more significant motor problems arise. These symptoms include:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • poor coordination
  • stooped posture
  • loss of smell

It’s not clear why dopamine levels drop off in people with Parkinson’s disease, but the lower the level of dopamine, the more likely you are to experience symptoms of the disorder.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease typically begin to appear when a person’s brain has lost 60 to 80 percent of their dopamine-producing cells in the substantia nigra. That means the drop in dopamine may be happening long before symptoms are recognized and your doctor begins the work of trying to determine what’s causing issues.

The electrical circuits in your brain move at lightning speed — faster, even. They send information and data through your brain and out into your central nervous system rapidly so you can move and react. However, when these transmitters are interrupted or redirected, symptoms and signs of potential problems can become apparent.

Dopamine is transported through your brain along specific pathways. These are called dopaminergic pathways or dopamine pathways. In people with Parkinson’s disease, two significant dopamine pathways — the mesolimbic pathway and the nigrostriatal pathway — stop communicating with other neurons and parts of the brain.

Typically, these pathways are responsible for moving dopamine from specific parts of the brain. In the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease, these pathways are no longer connected. With no dopamine to move, levels of the neurotransmitter begin to fall.

A blood test can be used to measure the level of dopamine transporters in the body. Research suggests a lower level of the dopamine transporter density is implicated in Parkinson’s disease development.

No single test can confirm a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, but some tests can help rule out other potential causes. The dopamine transporter scan (DaTscan) is one such test. While it doesn’t confirm the presence of the neurological condition, it can help your doctor rule out other potential causes.

During the imaging test, a healthcare professional administers a small amount of radioactive material. This material provides contrast on the DaTscan so they can determine how much dopamine is available in the brain.

This test isn’t used on people who are presenting more obvious signs of Parkinson’s disease or people who meet the criteria for diagnosis. Instead, DaTscan is often reserved for people who are showing only mild symptoms and don’t meet the standard criteria for a diagnosis.

Various types of treatments for Parkinson’s disease rely on dopamine.

Can dopamine be used to treat Parkinson’s?

If Parkinson’s disease is caused by a drop in dopamine, it might make sense that replacing that dopamine would stop the symptoms and halt the progression of the disorder. But it’s not that easy.

Dopamine from a medication or injection can’t penetrate the blood-brain barrier. That makes it an ineffective treatment.

An amino acid called levodopa can help increase levels of dopamine in the brain. If given as a medication, it can cross the blood-brain barrier. Once in the brain, levodopa is converted to dopamine.

Levodopa won’t replace all of the lost dopamine, but it can help to reduce symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It’s particularly helpful with movement control.

Deep brain stimulation

Deep brain stimulation is a type of treatment that includes placing electrodes on specific parts of the brain and using a generator to send electrical impulses through the brain. In people with Parkinson’s disease, these electrical signals can help reduce symptoms like tremor, rigidity, and muscle spasms.

What’s more, deep brain stimulation may increase the level of dopamine in a part of your brain. This in turn may reduce symptoms.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s great to have in abundance. When you do, your brain is flooded with pleasurable feelings and a sense of satisfaction and reward.

While increasing your natural dopamine won’t prevent or stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease, it might help stave off early symptoms of the disorder. For some people, natural dopamine boosts may be helpful alongside other treatments.

Dopamine plays a vital role in the body. It helps regulate movement, and it responds during times of reward and motivation.

Without dopamine, the brain can’t properly send electrical signals to your body. Signs and symptoms of the dopamine drop will begin to appear. These include tremor, muscle stiffness, and loss of coordination. Ultimately, a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis is likely.

While you can’t replace the lost dopamine in the brain, Parkinson’s disease treatments can help your brain create more of its own dopamine. Treatment can slow or decrease some of the symptoms of the progressive neurological disorder.

Janelle B. Smith

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