I was saddened this week to read of the death of Muhammad Ali. The 74 year old whose outrageous talent in the ring was matched by his political significance and cultural impact, struggled with Parkinson’s disease which began during his boxing career in the late 1970’s. He was hospitalised several times in recent years and died of respiratory problems related to his disease. I have spent over 30 years investigating the effects of Parkinson’s disease on the brain and I am happy to report that during this period I have seen great strides in our understanding and treatment of this illness.
What is Parkinson’s disease?
Over 4 million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease; a so-called hypokinetic disorder (Greek; hypo = lack of; kinetic = movement). It is a progressive disease – the symptoms start out small and get progressively worse but it is rarely fatal. With Parkinson’s disease one minute you are working away in the garden and the next you are literally stuck to the spot – totally unable to move. In these situations daily life can become a challenge that can be difficult to endure.
Causes of Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease can be genetic but it can also be triggered by what happens to you as you live your life such as prolonged exposure to chemicals like insecticides, weed killers and some drugs. Significantly in the case of Muhammad Ali, the disease can also be triggered by brain injury. However in most cases Parkinson’s disease arises ‘out of the blue’ as the so-called idiopathic Parkinson’s disease.
The core defect
The ‘core defect’ in Parkinson’s disease is a loss of a chemical in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine acts like hydraulic oil which lubricates those nerve circuits in the brain that are involved in executing a movement. In Parkinson’s disease the supply of dopamine dries-up and, like a car out of oil the engine seizes-up and movement grinds to a halt.
The Muhammad Ali we all remember was dopamine in action
We need dopamine to survive. Dopamine allows us to talk, socialise, be brave, improvise and take risks. When dopamine flows we don’t see things as being limited by circumstance. We have boundless energy and literally anything is possible! One only needed to watch Muhammad Ali’s awesome talent at the height of his career to see dopamine in action as his brain effortlessly converted his thoughts into the mesmerising performances inside and outside the ring that made him so loved by a generation. Ali’s ability to ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ was all down to the dopamine in his brain.
As a child in the 1960s I thought this 6’ 3’’ giant was the closest thing to Superman. Later I watched him take on the establishment over the political and cultural discrimination against his African American heritage knowing full-well that they were going to make him pay for it. It was then that I realised that Muhammad Ali was not just a gifted athlete but also a courageous human being – that he was in fact, a real, live Superman. Again, Ali’s deeply-held convictions and his bravery in standing by them was another expression of the dopamine in his brain.
Was boxing to blame?
Since Muhammad Ali’s death some media have reported that it is a pity that his illness had to overshadow what he achieved during his amazing life. Without dopamine Ali must have felt trapped and disconnected at times. While neurologists cannot definitively say whether Ali’s symptoms were a result of his boxing career, what is known for certain is that head trauma increases the risk of getting Parkinson’s disease.
Boxing and brain injury – a potentially lethal mix
Probably the most important lesson to be taken from Ali’s illness is that we need to open up a debate on how we as a society deal with traumatic brain injury and its causes. Even a minor concussion is dangerous because repeat concussions have cumulative effects on the brain, resulting in brain swelling, permanent brain injury, and long-term disability including Parkinson’s disease, personality change, epilepsy or even death.
By its very nature, a concussion is unexpected, so it is difficult to prevent. Here are three common-sense precautions you can take to lessen the possibility of traumatic brain injury.
1. Wear protective head gear. Participation in high-contact, high-risk sports such as all types of boxing, football, hurling and hockey can increase the likelihood of a concussion. Skateboarding, snowboarding, horseback riding, cycling and roller-blading are also a threat to your brain health. Wearing headgear, padding, and mouth and eye guards can help safeguard against traumatic head injuries. Wearing a bike helmet can lower the risk of traumatic head injury by 85%. Ensure that the equipment is properly fitted, well maintained, and worn consistently.
2. Drive smart. Always wear a seatbelt even as a passenger in a back seat, obey posted speed limits, and don’t use drugs or alcohol when driving, because they can impair reaction time.
3. Don’t fight. Concussions are often sustained during a punch-up, and more males than females report traumatic head injuries.
Funding for research into illness of mind and brain
We also need to highlight the realisation that a deeper understanding of the brain IS the difference between a good and a bad quality of life for the sufferers of brain illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease.
I hope that Muhammad Ali’s loved ones will take hope from the on-going research into Parkinson’s disease by teams of dedicated scientists worldwide.
Click on this link to hear Professor Billy O’Connor talk about Parkinson’s disease on Mind Matters – a science program on Irish National radio (RTE).
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