Parkinson's disease

Parkinson's disease

Image of neurons
Parkinson’s is a progressive neurodegenerative condition. It is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder, currently affecting around 220,000 Australians.

Parkinson’s disease results from the loss of specific nerve cells (called dopaminergic neurons) that produce dopamine, a chemical that is vital for the control of muscles and movement. A lack of dopamine means people can have difficulty controlling their movements and moving freely. It can also impact on other body systems such as the bowel, sense of smell, thinking and mood. Late stage Parkinson’s disease can also lead to dementia.

Why neurons die in Parkinson’s disease is unknown and there is currently no cure or treatment that slow its progression.

Parkinson’s disease research at WEHI

Our research program harnesses expertise in proteomics, genomics, structural biology and drug discovery, as well as our research in cell death and strong clinical partnerships, in particular with Dr Andrew Evans (Head, Movement Disorders Clinic, Royal Melbourne Hospital).

WEHI’s research into Parkinson’s disease aims to:

  • better understand the mechanisms involved in neurodegeneration
  • identify new biomarkers of disease progression 
  • develop new treatments to prevent or slow the progression of Parkinson’s.

Our researchers are:

  • Investigating how to stop or delay the nerve cell death that causes the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
  • Investigating how the dysregulation of a specific protein, called ubiquitin, can contribute to the onset and progression of Parkinson’s disease
  • Applying innovative approaches to better understand how powerhouses of cells, structures called mitochondria, keep nerve cells alive and healthy
  • Exploring the role that inflammation plays in the degeneration of nerve cells
  • Identifying new targets for drugs that may become treatments for neurodegenerative disease.

Our Parkinson’s disease research is also relevant to other neurodegenerative conditions such as:

  • Alzheimer’s disease – a form of dementia in which mental functioning, particularly memory, is impaired.
  • Motor neurone disease – a group of diseases in which the neurons that control the muscles degenerate and die, leading to loss of muscle control and eventually paralysis.
  • Huntington’s disease – an inherited neurodegenerative disorder that causes problems with both movement and mental functioning.

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson's disease is a progressive condition caused by the loss of neurons in the brain that are responsible for making a key chemical in the brain called dopamine.

Neurotransmitters like dopamine are chemical messengers that relay messages between the brain and the rest of the body.

When dopamine is not produced at adequate levels, controlling movement becomes increasingly difficult.

What are the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson's affects people in different ways, with each patient experiencing a unique combination of symptoms, level of intensity and disease progression.

The main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are:

  • tremor or shaking, which usually begins in a limb
  • muscle rigidity and stiffness
  • slowing of movement (bradykinesia)
  • stooped posture
  • balance problems
  • loss of automatic movements including blinking

Parkinson’s disease patients can also experience pain due to muscle rigidity, depression, constipation, problems swallowing, loss of smell, and problems with memory and sleep.

Many people associate Parkinson's disease with tremor, but in around 30 per cent of cases tremor is not present.

Parkinson’s is not a fatal disease. It is possible to live with Parkinson’s for a long time, although symptoms progressively worsen.

What causes Parkinson’s disease?

The majority of neurodegenerative disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, are due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. These are not well understood, however, making it difficult to identify who is at risk of developing the disease. Men are also more likely to develop Parkinson’s than women.  

The greatest known risk factor for many neurodegenerative disorders is age. Parkinson’s disease mainly affects people aged over 65, but it can occur at a younger age.

The number of people affected by Parkinson’s disease is likely to rise as our population ages, and possibly driven through environmental factors, making neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease a growing healthcare concern.

How is Parkinson’s disease treated?

There are currently no drugs to prevent or cure Parkinson’s disease, and there is no simple test to diagnose the disease.

Treatments to control symptoms can be very effective. Medications to alleviate symptoms commonly involve increasing dopamine levels through administration of levodopa. Certain patients that have unstable responses to levodopa may benefit from deep-brain stimulation.

Other approaches to manage symptoms and maintain daily activities include physiotherapy, speech pathology, occupational therapy and psychiatry. A multidisciplinary approach is typically applied to improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s.

We are committed to research to understand the causes of, and to find much-needed new treatments for, devastating neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

What support is available?

For more information about specific neurodegenerative disorders, please visit the following websites:


Professor Melanie Bahlo

Photo of Professor Melanie Bahlo
Laboratory Head; Leader, Healthy Development and Ageing Theme

Dr Rory Bowden

Dr Rory Bowden photographed smiling at the camera
Genomics Laboratory Head and Centre Manager, WEHI Advanced Genomics Facility

Dr Rebecca Feltham

Dr Rebecca Feltham photographed in a laboratory
Laboratory Head

Professor Guillaume Lessene

Professor Guillaume Lessene in a laboratory
Laboratory Head; Leader, New Medicines and Advanced Technologies Theme

Associate Professor Rosie Watson

Associate Professor Rosie Watson
Associate Professor
Joint Laboratory Head

Associate Professor Nawaf Yassi

Associate Professor Nawaf Yassi
Associate Professor
Joint Laboratory Head
Super Content: 
Two male researchers standing in a laboratory

Our researchers have revealed how a key protein protects against the death of neurons that occurs in Parkinson's disease.

View of neural stem cells

Learn about our research into the causes of neurodegenerative disorders, and our work to develop new treatments for these conditions.

Professor David Komander pictured giving a presentation

Professor David Komander provides an introduction to the ubiquitin code and its potential for tackling diseases such as Parkinson's disease.