A small new study suggests a high rate of Parkinson’s disease among middle-aged adults with autism. If confirmed with larger studies, the findings have important implications for the care and wellbeing of an aging population of people with autism. Parkinson’s is a chronic and progressive movement disorder.
In the first part of the study, the investigators found high rates of Parkinson’s motor signs (trembling, rigidity, instability, etc.) in a broad investigation of health issues among 19 adults with autism in their fifties and older.
The researchers then followed up with a more-targeted assessment for Parkinson symptoms in another 18 adults with autism in their forties or older. In this group, they found 12 participants (32 percent) met the basic diagnostic criteria for Parkinson’s.
However, some of these participants were taking medications for epilepsy, anxiety and other issues. Because such medications and conditions can complicate a diagnosis, the investigators ran their analysis again looking only at the 20 participants who were not on psychoactive medicines. Four of these participants (20 percent) received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
By contrast, Parkinson’s affects less one tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) of the general population over age 60.
“Understanding the neurobiology, associated conditions and care needs of older adults with autism is largely unexplored territory,” says senior author Joe Piven, a psychiatrist and autism researcher at the University of North Carolina. “With the knowledge that autism is typically a lifelong condition and the coming tsunami of population growth, this lack of knowledge and capacity for care is a huge, looming public health issue.”
Dr. Piven and his co-authors also note that autism and Parkinson’s share many overlapping characteristics. Some of the same gene changes that increase risk for Parkinson’s are likewise implicated as contributing to autism. Both disorders affect similar brain regions and motor control. The overlap suggests that the two disorders may share similar underlying biology, the researchers say, and might even respond, in some cases, to similar treatments.
In a Q&A with the journal’s editors, Dr. Piven adds:
“There is good reason to think that as far as findings in older adults with autism are concerned, this report is just the tip of the iceberg…. The overwhelming focus in autism to date has been on children, adolescents and more recently young adults. But research on ‘older adults with autism’ is a new frontier that will likely reveal very rich and important new knowledge about this condition.” Read the full Q&A at BioMed Central here.