UP to a million people in the UK who suffer shakes and tremors could have their lives transformed thanks to pioneering research by North East scientists.
A team from Newcastle University have discovered a mechanism in the spine which works to counteract the brain waves which produce tremors, a symptom of nervous diseases such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.
As a result, they are a step closer to treating these shakes and dramatically improving lives. Instead of looking at why people suffer from tremors, scientists have taken a different approach in looking at why most don’t have them.
Their aim has been to uncover something in the body which counters the tremor, cancelling it out. Research leader Prof Stuart Baker, professor of movement neuroscience at Newcastle University, said: “We don’t fully understand the brain systems causing these tremors but they can really have a massive impact on someone’s quality of life.
“They lose their independence and can’t do something as simple as make a cup of tea. Our approach was that instead of looking at why people suffer from tremors, we started to look at why most people don’t suffer from them.
“The brain waves from the parts of the brain controlling movement work at 10 cycles per second, so really, everyone should have a tremor at that frequency.
“In fact we do, but for most of us – most of the time – the tremor is so small as to be hardly noticeable. We reasoned that there is something in the body which counters the tremor, cancelling it out, and we wanted to find out what it was.
“Our research is a breakthrough in the respect we have taken a completely different approach in looking at tremors.”
Mild tremor is a feature of daily life in healthy individuals, especially when someone is nervous, tired or hungry.
But more severe tremors are a symptom of serious diseases, such as Essential Tremor. Essential Tremor is common in old age, but younger people can also be affected, and in severe cases it can leave patients unable to walk unaided. Newcastle University’s research, which is published today in the American Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is funded by the Wellcome Trust, involved teaching macaque monkeys to move their index finger slowly backwards and forwards.
This exacerbated the natural minor tremors that both primates and humans experience. Sensors were used to record the activity of nerve cells from the brain and the spinal cord as the animals moved. The brain and spinal cord both showed rhythmic activity at the same frequency as the tremor. But crucially the spinal cord was active alternately with the brain, counteracting the oscillations and reducing the size of the tremor.
Prof Baker said: “There are many different sorts of disease which produce tremor.
“In some, maybe the controller in the spine malfunctions, and that is what actually causes the tremor. Understanding more about how the spinal controller works could open the way to adjusting it to work better, reducing the levels of tremors patients suffer and improving their lives.”
It is hoped the research – which has cost more than £1m – will help patients within the next five to 10 years. It will be used to understand medications and operations that can be used to stop tremors.
“Our research is a very exciting development,” said Prof Baker. “It is humbling to think we are able to help change and improve the lives of people with tremors.”
‘The important thing is to give people their quality of life back’
GRANDMOTHER-OF-TWO Norma Riley has been suffering from a serious tremor for the last three years.
It has had a huge impact on her life and has left her feeling isolated and depressed. She is unable to get about without the aid of a wheelchair and relies on the constant help of friends and family.
She has recently been diagnosed with orthostatic tremor – a neurological movement disorder, characterised by high frequency tremors of the legs when in a standing position, and an immediate sense of instability.
The 71-year-old, of Lanchester, County Durham, said she is delighted the Newcastle University team has done research into tremors and hopes it will help patients like herself in the future. "I wobble quite a bit and I find it hard to walk," said the retired shop worker, who is a widow.
"I need to use a wheelchair all the time just to get to the shops and every time I go out of the house. When I try to walk my legs just give way. It is also hard for me to make something a simple as a hot drink as my arms are always shaking.
"I used to like going out for long walks in the countryside but I can’t do that anymore.
"The most important thing is to give those with tremors their quality of life back. Since mine started three years ago it has totally changed my life."