A Shaky Beginning: Parkinson’s Disease in Ancient History

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After finding out that an average of 30 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease every day in Australia I started to wonder how long humans have known and dealt with the disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system resulting in decreased motor skills due to the death of dopamine-generating cells. Symptoms include tremors and rigidity, gait, slowness in movement, cognitive issues, sensory and emotional issues, sleep problems and depression. With over 80,000 people in Australia living with Parkinson’s, it is almost certain that you know someone affected by it.

Mucuna Pruriens Bak

The oldest surviving reference to what could be Parkinson’s is in the traditions of Ancient India, with the treatment of the disease in the ‘Ayurveda’, an ancient system of medicine dating from around 5000-3000 BC. Gourie-Devi et.al explains in his ‘Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease in ‘Ayurveda’: Discussion Paper’ that the neurological disorders in the Ayurveda are thought to be due to an imbalance of ‘vata’. Parkinson’s is believed to be what is described as kampavata which bears a strong resemblance to the clinical features of Parkinson’s. The Ayurveda’s description of kampavata includes tremors, stiffness, depression and a depletion of movement. The Ancient Indians prescribed a number of drugs to battle the symptoms of the disease, some of which scientists have come back to review today. These include the root of Withania somifera, the seed of Mucuna Pruriens Bak, Root of Sida Cordifolia and the fruit of Hyocyamus reticulatus. In recent years, the experimentation with Mucuna Pruriens Bak has resulted in significant improvement in trial patients. This is recorded in Vaidya et.al Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease with the Cowhage Plant – Mucuna Pruriens Bak.

The Chinese appear to be the next to make descriptions suggestive of Parkinson’s Disease. These date to around 425 BC. Zhen-Xin Zhang et.al (2006) asserts that traditional Chinese medicine recommended an antitremor pill which is still used to this day in the traditional sphere. He suggests that based on the evidence provided by Zhang Zihe, in the first recorded case of Parkinson’s Disease in the manuscript Ru Men Shi Qin, the disease was first described in China around 2400 years ago.

Nestor and Telemachus

There are several references to ailments that are very similar in symptoms to Parkinson’s in the Ancient Greek literature. We cannot for certain say that these were Parkinson’s but the similarities suggest that the Ancient Greeks and later the Romans had knowledge of similar ailments and the known symptoms. Homer tells in the Odyssey that King Nestor suffers from symptoms which are typical of Parkinson’s and hence can no longer compete in athletic contests. Erasistratus of Keos describes in the third century BC a freezing that occurs such in Parkinson’s when he describes ‘paradoxos’: a type of paralysis which effects a person when walking by making them stop suddenly and being unable to continue, which wears off after some time. Dioscorides also mentions in his Materia Medica that beaver testicles are helpful in the treatment of lethargical problems, tremblings and convulsions alongside neurological and diseases of the nerves, when prepared with vinegar and roses. Celsus describes a similar ailment in his de Medicina Octo Libri and Galen is often said to give the first definite definition in his description of disorders of motor function. Galen, in his On Tremor, Palpitation, Convulsion and Shivering even distinguishes between the different forms on the basis of their origin and appearance.

The Byzantine period and following Medieval period saw the likes of Paul of Aigina (625-690AD) and Ibn Sina (980-1037AD) who provide further discussion of ‘shaking palsies’. The first definitive study of Parkinson’s Disease in Western medicine though is ascribed to its namesake, the English doctor James Parkinson. James Parkinson published a detailed description in An Essay on the Shaking Palsy in 1817.

There is unfortunately a limited awareness of Parkinson’s Disease in modern society. If you would like to find out more about Parkinson’s for yourself, family or friends, then please go to http://www.parkinsons.org.au/ which provides information, support, helplines and ways you can help.

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9 thoughts on “A Shaky Beginning: Parkinson’s Disease in Ancient History

    David Chedester said:
    February 9, 2012 at 8:41 am

    It’s amazing how much we know about Parkinson’s but yet have managed to stop the disease. I was diagnosed with PD when I was 27 and am fighting everyday to keep a positive attitude and smile on my face. I know one day we will beat this disease, and I can’t wait!

      GraecoMuse said:
      February 9, 2012 at 11:07 am

      I can’t wait either, a very close family member of mine has early onset Parkinson’s but we all keep a positive attitude and do what we can to raise awareness as a family. Thank you so much for commenting David and love your blog title 🙂

    GraecoMuse said:
    February 9, 2012 at 11:10 am
    Veronica said:
    February 10, 2012 at 12:39 am

    My grandfather had Parkinson’s. Here in the US its not as high profile as Alzheimer’s, they’re related conditions of course, even believed to have the same causes, but the attention only seems to go to Alzheimer’s. I’ve never had the opportunity to see it in the historical context either, that’s awesome! Thanks for the article.

    GraecoMuse said:
    February 10, 2012 at 9:27 am

    You are welcome V 🙂 It really should get more attention. It’s only in the last while with the likes of celebrities such as Michael J Fox, Mohammed Ali and the last Pope being affected that it is finally getting some coverage.

    Top Posts 2012 | GraecoMuse said:
    May 2, 2012 at 12:27 am

    […] navigation ← A Shaky Beginning: Parkinson’s Disease in Ancient History The Fall of the Ancient Olympics: The Theodosian Code → Feb 14 […]

    […] again to all my dear followers! This post is kind of a follow up to my post on the Parkinson’s Disease in Ancient History. It is all very well looking at the past but we must also look to the […]

    GraecoMuse Turns One « GraecoMuse said:
    October 13, 2012 at 12:51 am

    […] A Shaky Beginning: Parkinson’s Disease in Ancient History – 09/02/12 […]

    Secret00 said:
    October 27, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    My Grandfather and Great Uncle immigrated from Greece 1926 or about that date, they were both diagnosed with PD (young onset) they dies around 1944 1945, then my Aunt diagnosed 1975, my dad in 1990, my cousin age 1993, my brother 1998, my sister 1997 and my other cousin 2003, they all died except my cousin that was diagnosed in 2003, she is now age 51, My brother and sister both were tested for and determined they have the alpha synuclean gene, I was told many Greeks that have PD have the alpha synuclean
    Cindi Brooks

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