April 17, 2008

Weill Professor Weighs the Trials and Tribulations of Parkinson's

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Last night, Weill Medical College Professor Harriet Baker gave a talk entitled “New Frontiers — Humanizing the Scientific Process” in Goldwin Smith’s Kaufmann Auditorium. Baker, a faculty member in the Neurology and Neuroscience department, addressed the causes, treatment, and ethics of Parkinson’s disease in her discussion.
Throughout the seminar, Baker drew on her own experiences as a Parkinson’s patient who has dealt with the disease for over 11 years.
The Professor began by giving an overview of the history of the disease, which was first definitively described in 1817 by an English doctor named James Parkinson. She explained that the disease results from the progressive deterioration of a special type of nerve cell that communicates using the chemical dopamine.[img_assist|nid=29951|title=Passionate|desc=Dr. Harriet Baker, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College, speaks on Parkinson’s in Kaufmann Auditorium yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Baker noted that the nerve cell degeneration associated with Parkinson’s appears to be caused by several different factors, including genetic and environmental ones.
“I think that the variety in forms of the disease indicate that it has multiple causes,” she said. “It’s important to understand that when we’re talking about Parkinson’s, we’re not talking about one disease.”
Baker detailed Parkinsons’ noticeable symptoms, which include tremors of a specific frequency, slowness of movement and loss of balance. She also described the “silent symptoms” of the disease, including fatigue, speech impairment, depression, loss of smell and cognitive changes.
She surveyed the current treatments, which range from neuron transplants and the use of drugs that mimic dopamine to Deep Brain Stimulation using electrodes.
Baker focused on the social and ethical aspects of the disease and its treatment. She said that the way that the medical establishment currently handles Parkinson’s and other diseases is disappointing.
She said, “One very big societal issue today is that physicians are treating diseases, not people, especially in the case of Parkinson’s disease.”
Baker also expressed fear that insurance companies would require testing for Parkinson’s and then deny coverage to those afflicted with the disease. She said that she worried that employers would refuse to hire Parkinson’s patients or fire them due to liability concerns.
“These are all things that are going to have to be dealt with from the point of view of society,” she said.
Baker identified some serious misconceptions about the disease, noting that many people incorrectly believe that Parkinson’s shortens the life span or always gives rise to dementia.
She offered advice based on her own experience to the several Parkinson’s patients in the audience.
“It took me two years before I could talk about the disease,” she said. “I think it’s very important to discuss your situation with friends and family so that they know what to expect and how they can help you.”
Baker also stated that she felt that dopamine-mimicking drugs are currently underutilized and stressed the importance of non-pharmaceutical measures.
“With diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, it’s a case of use it or lose it — you have to continually exercise the body and the mind. You have to enlist the support of friends and family and become your own advocate,” she said.
Baker concluded with a description of her current research, which examines the effect of Parkinson’s on olfactory nerve cells. She said that she has been asked to be a member of a board at the Michael J. Fox Institute that will try to work out more effective treatment programs for Parkinson’s patients.
Triple Helix — a group that meets to discuss the relationships between science and society — put on the event. Event organizer Nishant J. Trivedi ’09 said that Baker was chosen as a speaker for several reasons.
“We were looking for someone well-versed in a current scientific problem who would be willing to address its ethical aspects,” he said. “The lack of very effective therapy for Parkinson’s disease and the ethical debates surrounding its treatment made it a very fitting subject.”
Nora Doyle ’11 thought that the lecture was particularly relevant for pre-med students.
“It was interesting to learn more about the science of the disease, but it was also interesting to listen to Dr. Baker’s points about how doctors could more effectively interact with their patients,” she said.