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    Richard J. Smeyne, PhD

    Richard J. Smeyne, PhD

    Parkinson's disease and cocaine abuse linked

    Adults who abuse cocaine might increase their risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, and pregnant women who abuse cocaine could increase the risk of their children developing Parkinson’s disease later in life, according to results of laboratory studies performed by St. JudeChildren's Research Hospital investigators.

    The study’s findings are important because there are currently more than 2 million cocaine abusers in the United States today, the researchers said. Many individuals who abused the drug during the height of the cocaine abuse epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s are now entering their older years, when symptoms of Parkinson’s are likely to emerge.

    A report on this work appears in the online, prepublication edition of Neuroscience.

    The St. Jude team showed in a laboratory model of both the adult and fetal brain that exposure to cocaine alters the nerve bodies in the region of the brain called the substantia nigra. This damage made the neurons more susceptible to MPTP, a toxin known to cause symptoms of Parkinson’s.

    "Our findings suggest that cocaine makes the substantial nigra pars compacta in adult brains susceptible to further damage from environmental toxins that can cause Parkinson’s disease," said Richard Smeyne, PhD, of the St. Jude Developmental Neurobiology department. "The findings also strongly suggest that women who abuse cocaine during pregnancies put their children at an increased risk for developing Parkinson’s disease."

    Based on the study’s results, it might not be surprising to see a rise in the number of cases of Parkinson’s disease in the next 10 or 20 years or so, Smeyne said.

    St. Jude does both laboratory and clinical research in order to find cures for catastrophic diseases of children. Much of this research, especially in the laboratory, leads to discoveries of the basic workings of the body's cells. Therefore, some of our work has broader implications than childhood diseases and provides insights into adult diseases as well.

    Last update: January 2006