What Causes Parkinson's Disease? An Epidemiologic Analysis of Occupational Exposures

An estimated 100,000 Canadians have Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects the body and brain, causing tremors, stiffness and impaired mobility. Dopamine is a chemical produced in the brain to carry signals between nerves. Parkinson’s develops when cells that produce dopamine die. Researchers have yet to determine what triggers the onset of Parkinson’s. Although a small proportion of cases seem to run in families, research indicates the explanation may lie in individual environmental and lifestyle exposures. For example, workplace exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, heavy metals and solvents may increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s. In one of the largest studies to examine Parkinson’s disease, Anne Harris is investigating whether exposure to the “whole-body vibration” workers can experience operating heavy machinery also elevates risk. Previous studies have shown that traumatic head injury from boxing and other activities can damage the part of the brain that produces signals crucial to mobility and brain function. Harris wants to determine whether the accumulation of smaller injuries over time from whole-body vibration also damages this part of the brain. Her findings could lead to new methods for preventing and treating Parkinson’s disease.