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Too many popular science books fall into one of two categories. On the one hand you have books that describe the science accurately, mentioning all sources of uncertainty, but then fails to convey the implications in an interesting manner. Then there are books that use the science like a drunken man uses a light post - for support rather than illumination. Such books can give you a gripping story and then a few references are thrown in to make the story seem credible, but they fail to explain the science behind the story.
This book finds the perfect sweet-spot in that it describes the in an intriguing but fair manner while also continually reminding the reader what the science means for the reader - whether that is someone afflicted with Parkinson or someone who is just interested in the disease. The story is told in a chronological manner, beginning with James Parkinson who first described the syndrome/disease that now bears his name. In the 1960s, more than a century after, came the first effective treatments for the disease. Levadopa (L-Dopa), a dopamine pre-cursor, showed promising results at first. What I didn’t know is that in the first blind study there was no difference between patients receiving Levadopa, and the group receiving a placebo. It was only after some tinkering with the doses that Levadopa became the main drug for alleviating symptoms that it is today.
Palfreman’s who himself has Parkinson writes about all the different approaches to curing or alleviating Parkinson, including, L-dopa, neural grafting, deep brain stimulation, growth factors, and viral destruction of misfolded proteins. The stories for these treatments can appear, and often are rather repetitive. It begins with galumphing scientists and foundations who believe they have found a potential cure for Parkinson and that they can make the disease vanish if they are given sufficient funds. Initial “open label” studies often show positive results, but then a blind study reveals that there is no difference between the treatment and a placebo. This seems to be the pattern for all treatments except for Levadopa and deep brain stimulation. Yet it is important to remember that the first Levadopa trial also showed negative results. New trials with new treatments are underway and personally I think that it is a matter of time before we find new treatments for the disease.
One type of “treatment” which is also appear to be effective and which is not invasive is exercise. Regular exercise can have a large effect on all symptoms related to the disease. Like with many other types of diseases that afflicts the elderly, it seems crucial to maintain an active lifestyle, both socially and in terms of physical exercise, if you want to slow the disease. Another aspect that Palfreman writes about is the placebo effect, which in the case of Parkinson is very large. One study found that Parkinson patients receiving a sham surgery often showed marked improvements in their symptoms which could last years. It is a shame you cannot manufacture the placebo effect, but the results clearly show that the mindset of the patient with Parkinson can have a surprisingly large effect on the way the disease is perceived.
Although I do not have Parkinson and the disease has not been a focal interest in my PhD studies, I was still captivated by Palfreman’s story, and the book really is an excellent book for anyone who want to understand how science progresses. It is a road that is more bumpy than most people tend to think. I think the book is also perfect for someone who has Parkinson because, despite all the setbacks in the field there is still hope. The book does not say that there will be a cure within five or even ten years (which would be unethical to say), but you can still sense the hope that someday (perhaps sooner rather than later), a new effective treatment will come.
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From the get-go, I knew Brain Storms was going to be a fascinating story. Part investigation and part memoir, journalist Jon Palfreman incorporates medical research and interviews with patients and doctors into a captivating biography of Parkinson’s. Recently diagnosed with the disease, Palfreman brings a personal and emotional element rarely witnessed in a book such as this. Brain Storms not only highlights the medical strides made in the field of neurodegenerative disorders, but also charts the vast setbacks researchers used to, and still do face. With so few books tackling Parkinson’s, this book is a much needed addition to any nonfiction fan’s library.
8 of 9 people found this review helpful