The Globe & Mail (Toronto, March 21) reports that four people who worked on a television sitcom filmed in Vancouver in the late 1970s, which includes actor Michael J. Fox, have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The news media is focusing their attention on the possibility that some environmental toxin was involved in this Parkinson’s cluster. Michael J. Fox, who will appear on a TV documentary in April, talks about this disease, but never gives a hint that there is another likely cause.
A neurotoxic street drug, MPTP, used by young people in the 1970s, appears to be selectively toxic to the cells in the substantia nigra, the part of the brain affected by Parkinson’s disease. MPTP is capable of producing virtually all the signs and symptoms of otherwise unexplained Parkinson’s. MPTP was first tested for its possible therapeutic use in 1947, but animals that were given the drug became rigid and unable to move and eventually died. After six humans were given the drug and developed Parkinson’s symptoms and two died, the drug was abandoned. However, the production of another compound, MPPP (an illicit narcotic compound), which is molecularly similar to MPTP was also found to produce similar symptoms.
The first case of MPTP causing parkinsonism occurred in 1976 when a young college student who manufactured and abused MPPP made a mistake in his recipe and produced MPTP. Within three days he exhibited severe symptoms. His family thought he was schizophrenic. In 1982 MPPP was again manufactured and illicitly sold in the street as synthetic heroin. Soon thereafter contaminated batches containing MPTP were being sold on the streets, and young users paid a terrible price. Young people were admitted to hospitals with severe end-stage Parkinson’s symptoms. The source was tracked to MPTP which was found to cause permanent damage to the brain cells of the substantia nigra.
It is unknown whether Michael J. Fox ever tried street drugs like MPTP, but the cluster of Parkinson’s cases is not likely to be caused by any environmental toxin. Michael J. Fox may be the poster boy to raise money for Parkinson’s research, but kids aren’t getting the right message. Don’t fool around with street drugs. The consequences may be irreversible.
Illicit drugs are not the only pharmaceutical agents that can induce Parkinson’s symptoms. Chlorpromazine and haloperidol, for example — prescribed for patients with psychiatric disorders, may cause symptoms. Some drugs used for stomach disorders (metoclopramide) and high blood pressure (reserpine) may also produce parkinsonian symptoms.