How a Junkie's Brain Helps Parkinson's Patients

ATASCADERO, California -- In Monterey County Jail, in the spring of 1981, a 21-year-old drug dealer and junkie named Toby Govea lay in bed shaking violently and uncontrollably. Thanks to a bad batch of homemade heroin, Govea had developed symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, an incurable neurological illness that causes muscle rigidity, tremors and eventually loss of movement.

Today, Govea remains incarcerated -- but free of tremors, thanks to a treatment made possible by research on the prisoner's own brain.

The treatment, called deep brain stimulation, has become the leading surgical treatment for Parkinson's, which afflicts 1.5 million Americans. It has been performed on more than 20,000 patients in the past decade.

In July of this year at the Atascadero State Hospital in California, Govea was lucid, and his muscles were still, as he recalled the events that made him a human guinea pig who helped develop a treatment for his own illness.

Govea used a drug he thought was heroin in late 1980. An acquaintance of his father's from Texas had come to their house in Salinas with a briefcase full it. "He didn't say 'This is pure stuff,' or 'This is from Mexico,' like the other connections.... I remember him saying, 'This is homemade,' or something."

He had learned drug use from his family as a kid, experimenting with cocaine, PCP and other drugs before becoming a heroin addict. But even a seasoned drug user like Govea couldn't tell the Texan's drug was not heroin at all, but the result of a botched attempt at making it. The creation was a synthetic narcotic composed almost entirely of 1-methyl 4-phenyl 1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine, or MPTP. Typically, it's a discarded byproduct of heroin synthesis.

Several members of Govea's family, including his father and stepsister, crowded into a bedroom to try it. Despite an initial burning sensation in his veins when injecting it, Govea remembers feeling the familiar rush of heroin. The man offered him an ounce to distribute, and Govea agreed.

Then Govea made the biggest mistake of his life: He began using his product. During the second week of shooting, up his limbs began to shake, one after another. "This leg, then this arm, then this leg," Govea said. "Then I shot some more and this arm started." In less than two weeks he had given himself symptoms of advanced Parkinson's disease. Shortly after that, he was arrested for petty theft and sent to Monterey County Jail.

When he was released, his mother took him to several doctors who were baffled by his case. They diagnosed Govea with an unusual form of Parkinson's disease, but they did not know, because he would not tell them, that his shaking had begun after dosing repeatedly with the Texan's phony heroin.

Finally, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center doctors recognized his symptoms. They had seen a handful of similar cases, all caused by accidental dosing with MPTP. By figuring out that heroin use was the one thing Govea had in common with the other patients, the doctors linked his condition with intravenous MPTP injection.

The knowledge opened a window to the inner workings of Parkinson's disease that changed the prospects of people suffering from it -- including Govea -- overnight. The Santa Clara doctors published their research in the journal Science. (Disclosure: The author's father, J. William Langston, was one of the authors. He also co-authored a book in 1995: The Case of the Frozen Addicts.)

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