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Chronic Illness

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Problems with mobility make it hard for people with Parkinson's disease to express their personality

Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative movement disorder that causes tremor (often made worse by stress or strong emotions), muscle rigidity, inability to initiate movement, expressionless face (facial masking), involuntary uncoordinated movements, poor balance, shuffling gait, and other symptoms. These symptoms often lead to misunderstandings and limit the ability of people who have the disease to express their personality, which is a source of great frustration for them. For example, due to facial masking, others may think the person with Parkinson's disease is angry when he or she is not feeling angry, or the other person may think the movement problems are due to intoxication.

For individuals in the early stages of Parkinson's disease, certain expressive behaviors may provide cues to a person's personality, according to a study supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS13292). Simple clues such as eyebrow furrowing and casual dress may help interpret a person's interest in and motivation for social interaction, explains Kathleen Doyle Lyons, Sc.D., O.T.R., of Dartmouth Medical School. Dr. Lyons and her colleagues obtained personality measurements (neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) prior to conducting and videotaping simulated health care interviews with 12 people with mild to moderate Parkinson's disease.

The researchers analyzed the videotapes to correlate expressive behaviors of the participants (for example, eyebrow furrowing, slouching, formality of dress, voice inflection and loudness) with the personality measures. Participants who were neurotic (nervous or emotionally distressed) appeared more talkative, more formally dressed, and more inclined to move their bodies and furrow their brows during the interview. On the whole, participants' expressive behavior did not convey their levels of extroversion or significantly reflect agreeableness. Those more open to experience dressed less formally.

For more information, see "Behavioral cues of personality in Parkinson's disease," by Dr. Lyons, Linda Tickle-Degnen, Alexis Henry, and Ellen S. Cohn, in Disability and Rehabilitation 26(8), pp. 463-470, 2004.

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