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Drugs for Parkinson’s: The Shocking Side Effects

Common medications to treat Parkinson's disease can cause addictions to gambling, shopping, compulsive eating and an obsession with sex
By Elizabeth Marglin
Published: July 2, 2015
Last updated: June 16, 2016

There are 2 main categories of drugs for Parkinson’s Disease, and both have powerful side effects: levodopa, which makes many patients shaky with dyskinesia, and dopamine agonists, which can make turn people into gamblers, sex addicts or hit them with ‘sleep attacks’ — including when they’re driving. This is the story of DA.

At least 1 million people in the US and an estimated 10 million worldwide live with Parkinson’s, making it the second most common neurodegenerative disorder (Alzheimer’s ranks first). Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the central nervous system, is caused by a degeneration of nerve cells in certain parts of the brain that produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine, commonly known for it’s role in controlling the brain’s reward and pleasure center, is partly responsible for starting a circuit of messages that coordinate normal movement.

In the absence (or with substantial reduction, more than 80% percent of the normal level) of dopamine, the neurons — called dopamine receptors — in the brain’s striatum are not adequately stimulated. In simple language, as a person’s brain slowly stops producing dopamine, a person has less and less ability to regulate his or her movements, body, and emotions. The result is impaired movement with tremors, slowness, stiffness or balance problems. Lesser known symptoms include depression, apathy and dementia.


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After examining 2.7 million reports of drug reactions submitted to an FDA database between 2003 and 2012, researchers published a study in JAMA Internal Medicine that independently corroborated that a disproportionate number of people living with PD have reported impulse control disorders.

The study results reflect that although dopamine medications (such as Mirapex, Requip and Neupro) are essential to treating Parkinson’s Disease (PD), the challenge is to find a balance between high and low levels of dopamine. Long-term exposure to dopamine medications, especially dopamine agonists (DAs), can cause a hypersensitivity to dopamine. The body overreacts, and this in turn can lead to an impulse control disorder (ICD) — a group of behaviors that includes gambling, uncontrollable shopping, compulsive eating, a sudden obsession with sex, punding (stereotypic, complex, and repetitive behavior involving meaningless activities) — as well as a related disorder, excessive daytime sleepiness.

Impulse Control Disorders, Up Close and Personal

Michael J. Fox and people from his foundation answer questions about Parkinson’s in a Google Hangout

Interestingly, Daniel Weintraub, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, says that ICDs are most likely to manifest in men as gambling and hyper sexuality, whereas in women it expresses as shopping and overeating.

Needless to say, these compulsive behaviors can have serious repercussions.

“I’ve seen marriages break up and lives ruined as a result of dopamine agonists,” says Howard Weiss, director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorder Programs at the LifeBridge Health Brain & Spine Institute in Baltimore. “I’ve had at least three patients who have lost their homes because of bankruptcy after taking the drugs. It sounds like a joke, but it’s not.”

What’s more, ICDs are shockingly common. Weintraub cites a study that demonstrated about 14% of people with PD experience 1of 4 of the typical ICD behaviors. He says his own guess is more like 17% to 20%, perhaps even 25%.

The reason that ICD might be even more prevalent than statistics show lies in the fact that they can easily slip under a doctor’s radar. Many patients aren’t forthcoming about the symptoms, and doctors may not take the time to ask the right questions.

“Most doctors have no idea how to diagnose ICDs,” says Weiss, “and most patients are in the dark.”

He says when he asked one elderly patient taking one of the drugs if she ever gambled, she replied, “Gambling is the work of the devil.” “But she had been buying hundreds of dollars’ worth of lottery tickets a week, a habit she didn’t consider to be gambling,” he says.

At every visit, Weiss suggests, “The doctor has to ask patient and spouse about unusual behavior. A big red flag, he says, is when patients complain of not sleeping. This is normally “code” for increased computer use, which may include pornography and internet gambling, and punding (performance of repetitive, mechanical tasks). Here’s a closer look at some of the common types of ICDs.

Next: Sleep Attacks >>

Elizabeth Marglin

Elizabeth Marglin

Elizabeth Marglin specializes in covering health, wellness, and sustainability for Yoga Journal, Natural Health, Natural Solutions, Vitacost, Gaiam, and numerous other magazines and websites. When she’s not writing, she’s most likely doing yoga,

enjoying the many rugged trails or abundant open space of her home, or roaming

through bookstores, kids in tow. Elizabeth lives in Lyons, Colorado, with her

husband, two kids and two cats.

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