How an Opiate Overdose Revolutionized Parkinson’s Disease Research

From Massive Science, a look at how advances can come from the oddest places.

“In the early 1980s, doctors across northern California encountered patients with curious symptoms. From Watsonville to San Jose, young people were experiencing a combination of visual hallucinations, jerking limbs, and stiffness. Their abilities to move and speak worsened over a space of mere weeks, and by the time they sought medical help they had become totally immobile.

In San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, psychiatrists insisted that their medical mystery patient had a neurological disorder. However, neurologists were adamant that the patient was undergoing a psychiatric episode. Amidst the arguments, Director of Neurology, William Langston, noticed a striking resemblance of the patient’s condition to that of Parkinson’s disease (PD). They were alert, but their body was rigid – with an arm involuntarily raised for long periods of time. PD is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder (behind Alzheimer’s disease), and the most common neurodegenerative movement disorder worldwide, but it is typically associated with old age, and symptoms develop over a period of years – not weeks.”

Basically, before you can test treatments for a symptom, you must be able to simulate that symptom in cells or test animals. For decades scientists had struggled to simulate Parkinson’s Disease in a clinical setting. The discovery that certain synthetic heroin could do that allowed for most of the advances in treatment in the last 30+ years for that disease.

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