The science of the brain is a field that has vast caverns of unknown, but in recent years science has come much further in its understanding of the brain and its controls over the body.
Dr. Cynthia Reed has made the move back to Tucson this month to add to the brain trust of noodle knowledge in Southern Arizona. She is a neurologist and movement disorder specialist – a practice in high demand with an aging population and multiple retirement communities.
Reed comes to Tucson from Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.
“I would see so many patients from Tucson, Green Valley and all around Southern Arizona while I was in Phoenix,” she said. “They had to come so far to get the treatment and care they needed. When this opportunity came up to come back to Tucson, I took it.”
Reed went to medical school at the University of Arizona and met her husband in Tucson, so she said was familiar with the town and wanted to come make a difference in people’s lives in Southern Arizona.
She joined Western Neurosurgery, an affiliated partner of the Carondelet Neurological Institute. She was enticed there by the talks of a specialist group forming in her area.
“We’re developing a comprehensive group specializing in movement disorders,” she said. “It will be a unique center that does not yet exist in Southern Arizona.”
Reed specializes in deep brain stimulation and the diagnosis and treatment of Parkinson’s disease and associated syndromes, essential tremors, dystonias, tics and Tourette’s syndrome, choreas including Huntingtons’s disease, myoclonus, Wilson’s disease and restless leg syndrome. It is a personal work for Reed, whose grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when she was young.
“I didn’t have any medical training at the time but I remember the doctors had a hard time controlling his symptoms,” she said. “Looking back now I realize it is probably because he was an atypical Parkinson’s patient. But he struggled with his symptoms a lot and because of that, my father, who was trying to take care of him and take him to all his appointments, struggled a lot. Just remembering how much that impacted me, those are the type of patients I relate to and the type I feel compelled to help.”
She said a joke heard often in medical school was that neurologists could diagnose anything but couldn’t do anything to treat it.
“It was a ‘you have this disease, but there’s nothing I can do,’” she said. “That wasn’t entirely accurate at the time, but it reflected the prior history at the time. But now there are more and more treatments available whether medically, surgically or rehabilitative. Medicine has come a long way, but neurology has come a long was as well in diagnosing and understanding the diseases themselves so we can develop targeted therapies to those diseases and know what the specific syndromes of diseases are.”
For years, it was thought that Parkinson’s disease was related only to a dopamine deficiency and that it affected a small portion of the brain. Today, neurologists have come to realize that’s not the case.
“Now we know it affects many levels of the brain which is how it can relate to the various symptoms,” she said. “We also know there are abnormalities in neurotransmitters other than dopamine. There really is a spectrum of what’s involved pathologically in the brain.”
Reed works in the medical treatment of movement disorders.
She said there have been many drugs developed over the years and new drugs are being developed all the time.
“We hope to be involved in this clinical research to help develop new drugs for movement disorders and find new uses for the old medications,” Reed said. “We want to be able to treat the patients symptomatically but also develop neuro-protective therapies that will alter the course of the disease. Exercise has been proven to be neuro-protective in Parkinson’s patients.”
Despite the advances in science, the medical field still can’t say definitively what causes Parkinson’s disease. Reed said about 15 percent of the cases can be attributed to genetics and some specific genes have been identified, but that leaves 85 percent of patients without a genetic link to the disease.
“Each of us has a population of cells deep in our brain in the substantia nigra,” Reed said. “We’re all born with about 400,000 of these cells and their purpose is to create the dopamine that helps these movement circuits in the brain. We lose about 1,000 of these cells on average per year, but something causes those cells to get lost faster in patients who develop Parkinson’s. So there is a long history of decline long before anyone can diagnose Parkinson’s.”
She said scientists are starting to look at this prediagnosis period for the common symptoms of Parkinson’s including constipation, sleep disorders and mood problems like depression.
“These do not mean that you will get Parkinson’s if you have these,” she said. “But these are the more common symptoms Parkinson’s disease patients share and they can start years before a diagnosis can be given. But if we look at those now and can treat them ahead of time, you are treating the patient as a whole and not just the tremor.”
Next Generation is a monthly feature of Inside Tucson Business. If you’ve got an idea or someone you think should be profiled, contact reporter Joe Pangburn at email@example.com or (520) 295-4259.