David Paydarfar is Professor and Chair of the Dept. of Neurology at Dell Medical School in Austin, TX, and is a fellow of the American Neurological Association.
I’ve been a neurologist since 1993. I became interested in the brain in college and in medical school; how the brain works, not only how it works normally, but how it breaks down, and how neural circuits in the brain start to malfunction. I wanted to devote my career to doing research working in the university environment, not only to train doctors for the future, but also to work on these conditions that relate to the brain.
In line with our James Bond theme at KiMe, David has been assigned agent status 004: Neurologist for his determination to find a cure for Parkinson’s. There are seven total “00” status agents in this interview series.
Parkinson’s disease is a condition that damages brain circuits.
This damage progresses over many years and the cause of Parkinson’s disease is not yet fully understood. There are things that make someone more likely to have Parkinson’s disease, but the exact cause is still under active research.
There are currently no known medications that definitively halt or change the progressive damage. But there are medications that one can take to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s, such as the tremors or instability. The most common medications affect the dopamine system. That’s a system of neurotransmitters and a system of chemicals in the brain that affect movement and behavior. For example, L-dopa is one of the more common medicines that has been used for many years and is very effective in reducing the symptoms of Parkinson’s.
In my own experience seeing patients and over the years, patients who remain very active, (exercise)is extremely effective at protecting the individual from some of the worst complications of Parkinson’s. And when I say exercise, I like to say exercising the body and the brain, both. Strengthening the muscles, strengthening posture, can reduce the chance of falling and can increase mobility. Improving strength, coordination, and dexterity, is very important part. I would say mental exercise like reading and doing crossword puzzles and debating, is another important aspect of protecting the brain
Also very important is coming out of social isolation, interacting with friends and family, creating social connections. I can’t overstate it, individuals who remain active in their social lives- whatever areas that they enjoy the most- is very, very healthy. That relates to emotional health as well, to combat depression, to combat discouragement, keeping a positive attitude, these all are traits that affect the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s.
I would say, there are many, many programs throughout the academic community, pharmaceutical research, device research, that are advancing how we understand what causes Parkinson’s and how to treat Parkinson, or even to prevent it.
For example, we believe that there’s certain environmental exposures that can make some individuals more vulnerable to Parkinson’s. There is accumulating evidence that some environmental factors include toxins that are used as insecticides and herbicides, and whether those are actually causing damage to the circuits in the brains that are responsible for control and movement related to Parkinson’s. This is an area of active research that could be a clue for not only the cause of Parkinson’s, but also potential treatments.
The other area of research has to do with ways to help optimize treatment. For example, people travel long distances to go from their home to the doctor’s office. They are checked, and the doctor makes a change in the medication. The idea is to use sensors, smartphones, and smart technologies of the future for monitoring people with Parkinson’s, to alert the family, the patient, the doctors, and nurses. These sensors are involved in looking at movement, tremor, posture, all kinds of things that we do every day.
For example, can we use sensors to detect when somebody is losing their balance, and are likely to fall in the next day, in the next week, in the next month? We need to look for something that is making the person less balanced. Technologies are being used so that we can prevent bad outcomes or emergency room visits.
Every day I appreciate the opportunity that I have in helping people’s health and promoting health. Understanding the brain, how the nervous system works, is just a fascinating topic. It’s who we are. Our speech, our movements, our emotions, our thoughts, everything we do, involves the nervous system. The nervous system controls our organs, controls our body, and the ability to understand how the brain works is just very interesting, and challenging, and there’s never a dull moment.
It’s important to advocate for and support research, because the research community, the medical community, has, so far, failed to find the cause, and to find a way to prevent this condition from progressing.
Supporting research, supporting bright young minds who want to try to test new ideas, is a great investment for society, and gives hope to all of us.
About Faith McGhee
After 17-year-old Faith McGhee graduated early from Oak Ridge High School in 2022, she sought out a new assignment—researching Parkinson’s disease. It was at a 2022 KiMe Fund Volunteer meeting the idea developed. Over the next few months McGhee made time to interview doctors, caregivers and patients, chronicling their stories of the neurological disorder that steals a person’s ability to move, eat and speak. What sparked her curiosity and concern? Faith’s grandfather has suffered from Parkinson’s her whole life. “The word I would use to describe him—it’s just strong,” she said. “He’s persevered through everything and he’s always been there for me and I try to do the same for him now.” Faith intends for these interviews to be a source of information, education and inspiration.