For twenty-three years, my father suffered from Parkinson's disease, a chronic, disabling brain disorder to which he eventually succumbed. Muhammad Ali, Janet Reno, and Michael J. Fox are among the prominent people who suffer from this illness. Parkinson's disease is caused by a deficiency of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The most widely used western or "allopathic" treatment, Sinemet, is a combination of levodopa and carbidopa that works by increasing dopamine levels within the brain. This is by no means a perfect treatment, and at best staves off a few of the more nasty features of the illness. An episode that occurred early in the course of my father's illness helps to illustrate one facet of alternative medications in enhancing brain function.
A few years after my father developed Parkinson's disease, during one of my annual visits to my parents' house, I strolled in to see my mother in her bedroom. She was clad in a faded off-white sari, her domestic dress as per traditional custom. She sat cross-legged on the floor with two small mounds of silvery metallic powder laid out on a sprawling piece of paper. She was meticulously mixing the shiny substances together. She wasn't happy about my intrusion, and quickly tried to wrap up and hide the telltale material. I immediately guessed what was happening. In her frustration at the lack of response in my father's symptoms to Sinemet, she had turned to Ayurveda, the ancient art of medicine laid out in the encyclopedic Hindu texts, the Vedas. The shiny gleam in the metallic powder made me fear that toxic metals like mercury or lead might be hiding within. During my medical internship year in a rural setting in south ern India, I had learned firsthand of the rapaciousness of fake Ayurvedic practitioners who thought nothing of adulterating historic remedies with their own brand of poison, purely for the sake of pocketing a few extra rupees. Heavy metal therapy is not unknown even in Western medicine, where injections of gold—yes, metallic gold—have been used successfully to treat severe rheumatoid arthritis. On the other hand, heavy metals can actually worsen Parkinson's disease, and I knew that Ayurveda had no effective treatment for this condition. I had a heated argument with my mother, and for a change, I won. She is well educated and knew about the toxicity of heavy metals like lead and mercury, but the tragedy of my father's illness had clouded her judgment and led her to desperately seek a remedy that might prove to be better than the standard medication, Sinemet.
The next example reveals the other side of the coin: an Ayurvedic preparation with potential promemory effects.
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