Is there a Parkinson’s personality?

Parkinson's disease, puzzle brain

A new study by researchers at USF Health adds to a growing body of research suggesting that the risk for Parkinson’s disease may be higher among people with cautious, risk-averse personalities. Furthermore, the study found patients’ tendencies to avoid risk and prefer routine activities appeared to be stable personality characteristics across their adult lifetimes, exhibited long before movement disorder symptoms began.

The results were presented last month at the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) annual meeting inNew Orleans by Kelly Sullivan, PhD, a neuroepidemiologist in the Department of Neurology at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. 

 Dr. Sullivan emphasized that much more research is needed to confirm the hypothesis that certain personality traits may be early manifestations of Parkinson’s disease.

Still, the presentation created quite a media buzz, with an article about the study shooting to the top of the Yahoo News! Most Popular Science stories list (May 1, 2012).

Kelly Sullivan, Department of Neurology, USF Health neuroepidemiologist

                        Kelly Sullivan, PhD

Dr. Sullivan and colleagues from the USF Departments of Neurology and Family Medicine and College of Public Health asked 89 patients with Parkinson’s disease and 99 controls (patients without Parkinson’s disease) whether they engaged in risky activities, such as skydiving, riding a rollercoaster, speeding when driving or gambling, as young adults (ages 20 to 35). They also assessed the study participants’ current personalities using a variety of measures.

“The people with Parkinson’s disease took fewer risks as young adults,” Dr. Sullivan said.  

Dr. Sullivan was surprised by the attention generated by the study, but said she understands the inherent interest in possible links between personality traits and disease. “If you hear about a study linking pesticide exposure and Parkinson’s, you might not be as interested if you don’t work in agriculture,” she said. “But everybody has a personality, so they are more likely to relate to a study correlating characteristics of personality and disease.”

View the AAN poster presentations by Dr. Sullivan and colleagues below: