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Maurice White: Parkinson's Disease and Mitochondria
 
Maurice White was the founder, lead singer, main songwriter, arranger, record producer and bandleader of Earth, Wind & Fire.  The band had 16 Top-40 singles and sold an estimated 90 million albums.  White was nominated for 20 Grammys and won seven, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame, has a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame and won four American Music Awards.
 
In 1987, his hands started to shake and he was given medication that helped to control the shaking.  In 1992, at age 51, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.  The disease forced him to stop touring with the band in 1995 and killed him at age 74, on February 3, 2016.  We have no cure for Parkinson's, but new understanding of the role of mitochondria is leading to more effective treatments.  
 


 

Rise to Stardom
He was born in Memphis on December 19, 1941 and raised there by his grandmother. He made frequent trips to Chicago to visit his mother and stepfather, who was a doctor.  He started singing in his church gospel choir at age six.  After watching a local marching band, he joined the Booker T. Washington High School drum corps because, "I saw the guys in the band playing drums with their shiny suits and getting all the attention from the girls."  
 
In his teens, he moved to Chicago, studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and played drums in local nightclubs.  In 1966 he joined the Ramsey Lewis trio, and in 1969, he formed the Salty Peppers with Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead.  White sang and played the kalimba or African thumb piano, which contributed to the band's distinctive sound.  
 
Success with Earth, Wind and Fire, Then Health Problems
The group moved to Los Angeles, changed its name to Earth, Wind & Fire and signed with Warner Bros. Records. His younger brother, Verdine, is one of the original members of EWF and his older brother, Fred, joined in 1974.   In 1975 they recorded their No. 1 hit, "Shining Star."  
 
In the early 1980s, White became too tired to perform (one of the first signs of Parkinson's disease) and switched to producing and arranging acts for Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, the Emotions, El DeBarge and Jennifer Holliday.  In 1987, his hands started to shake.  In 1992 at age 51, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and given medication that subdued the shaking.  In 2000, the medication stopped working, as it almost always does, and he had to stop touring with the band.  He built a recording studio, founded his own record label, Kalimba Records, and recorded his own music.  Parkinson's disease is a relentless progressive disease that takes away one body function after another until at age 74, it finally killed him in his sleep. 
 


 

What is Parkinson's Disease?
More than one million people in the United States suffer from Parkinson’s disease, with shaking and muscle weakness that progresses to inability to control muscles so that a person eventually becomes bedridden.  Parkinson's disease first affects the brain and then the entire body.  The symptoms usually begin slowly and worsen over time: 
* trembling of hands, arms, legs, jaw, or head, 
* stiff limbs and trunk, 
* slow movement and loss of balance.   
As the disease progresses, patients suffer difficulty walking, talking and sleeping, depression, loss of memory, mood disorders, and extreme fatigue.
 


 

Mitochondria and Parkinson's Disease
The leading theory is that Parkinson's is caused by damage to the mitochondria inside the brain cells that produce dopamine.  Less than 0.3 percent of the nerves in the brain can produce dopamine.  Dopamine helps send messages from one nerve to another to control the movement of your muscles, so loss of dopamine impairs your brain's ability to control your muscles.  Doctors treat Parkinson's disease with drugs to increase dopamine, but having too much dopamine can interfere with your ability to reason to cause schizophrenia.  (Schizophrenia is treated with drugs that prevent dopamine from acting on the brain). 
 
Every cell in your body is like a balloon full of fluid.  Inside of every cell (except mature red blood cells) are little structures called mitochondria that convert food to energy. Damage to mitochondria interferes with a cell's ability to produce dopamine (Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. Feb, 2012;2(2):a009332).  Damage to mitochondria causes cells to produce huge amounts of free radicals that damage the cells, blocks the ability of nerves to move calcium in and out of calls so they cannot transmit messages effectively, and eventually kills the cells (Biochim Biophys Acta. Jan, 2010;1802(1):29-44).
 
Rejuvenating Mitochondria
Today, the most promising research on Parkinson's is to rejuvenate mitochondria. At this time the only way to increase the size and number of  mitochondria is to exercise, and intense exercise does this far more effectively than casual exercise. Exercising to shortness of breath increases mitochondria significantly, and exercise is being used to treat Parkinson's (JAMA Neurology, January, 2016).  The problem is that Parkinson's disease makes people so uncoordinated that they rarely can exercise at all.  Almost none can exercise alone with enough intensity to grow large numbers of new mitochondria.  However putting people with Parkinson's disease on devices that assist their exercise can make up for their inability to control their own muscles.  For example, putting the patient on the back of a tandem bicycle allows the person in the front to control balance and push the pedals which forces the person in the back to pedal also. The patient's feet are clipped to the pedals and the upper body can be secured to the seat and handlebars if needed.  Using a tandem tricycle is even safer as three wheels help to prevent falls.  In this way, the patient can pedal at a 90 rotations per minute cadence intensity without falling.   So far the improvement in muscle control with intense exercise has been remarkable in both humans and animals (Exerc Sport Sci Rev. Oct, 2011;39(4):177-86).   This means that a major part of treatment should be to make it possible for patients to exercise intensely without hurting themselves.   Motor driven exercise equipment with special restraints to prevent people from falling and hurting themselves could be the major advancement in treating Parkinson's disease.  More on Parkinson's Disease
 


 

December 19, 1941 – February 3, 2016 
February 28th, 2016
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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