Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trout Trek Part IV - Trout Therapy for Parkinson's Disease?

Before I conclude the Trout Trek 2016 series with the chronicles of Day 2 on the river, I wanted to note an interesting effect that an afternoon of catching big trout had on my normal Parkinson’s Disease symptoms.  I made this same trip on the same weekend the prior year.  Then, it was obvious that Parkinson’s Disease (PD) had progressed enough over the winter season that my already marginal fly casting “skills” were, well, fading.  I am right-hand dominant, and PD randomly (?) selected my right side as my “Parkinson’s Side.”  This simply means that my symptoms started on the right side (a tiny thumb twitch) and are generally more prominent, intense, and conspicuous than on my left.  So, I set about learning to fly cast with my left hand, which I wrote about extensively (see here, here, and here.)

Notice the bent right wrist, a recent symptom of increased muscle
tightness, caused by Parkinson's Disease (click photos to enlarge)
It took six months of effort, nasty self-criticism, and training from patient fishing guides, but my ability to cast with my left arm now far exceeds anything I could ever have done with my right.  I will grudgingly thank PD for this.  It made these two days of fishing in Montana much more enjoyable.  I could reach spots from the back of the boat that were out of reach from the front last year, mend better, and feel good about fishing rather than getting frustrated.  But something even more satisfying happened toward the end of the first day’s float trip down the Missouri River in Montana.

Parkinson’s Disease is the result of a shortage of dopamine in the brain.  Studies have attributed this shortage of dopamine to the death of dopamine-producing neurons in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra.  For those of you who didn’t embrace Latin roots in elementary school, it loosely translates to “black stuff.”   I prefer a different, more physics-oriented version: dark matter!  When 60% to 80% of these neurons die off, lots of not-fun things start, like tremors, moving slowly, losing balance, insomnia, memory loss, constipation, and loss of motivation (aka apathy or depression.)

That last bit is interesting.  No only does dopamine play a critical part in movement, it’s also a major part of the brain’s “reward system.”   It’s involved in making us feel good about things we’ve done well, or otherwise enjoy.  (Chocolate, anyone?)  Another illustration: lots of addictive drugs (alcohol, nicotine, heroin, and cocaine) cause a dopamine increase in the reward system.  Is it possible that hooking and catching trout with a fly rod triggers this kind of activity in the reward system?  I’m going to assert that yes, this is possible.  If you follow the theory of evolution, then a good part of recent human evolution was focused on our survival as hunters and gatherers.  Fishing is a bit of both, and I will testify under oath that there are few things as thrilling (a type of reward?) as hooking a trout that runs, jumps five times, and results in an awesome “best catch ever” photo.  Any dopamine being released here?  From an evolutionary perspective, we may be hard-wired to enjoy catching fish.

Day 2 - Yep, right wrist is still bent, even when stripping in line
I know I’m glossing over a LOT of neuroscience here, with apologies, but I’m coming to the point.  Mrs. Fading Angler and I had been catching fish fairly steadily all Saturday afternoon.  It was even more fun because we had plenty of “double-ups” where we both were trying to land a fish at the same time.  When you’re catching fish AND your better-half is celebrating as she hooks one, too, it’s pretty darned rewarding.  But, sometimes nature calls.  Mrs. FA called time-out as we approached a launch ramp later in the afternoon, and I elected to walk up to the outhouse facilities with her.  I noticed something fascinating about halfway up the ramp.  First, my noticeable right leg limp was missing.  Even more stunning was the fact that my right arm was actually swinging as I walked, with almost the same amplitude as my left.  Lack of right arm swing was one of my first signals that something was going wrong in my brain, so I was flabbergasted when free-swing came back.  There was still some tremor and random twitching in my right hand.  But the right-side stiffness was diminished to the point where I almost felt normal.  I spent the rest of the afternoon casting my fly rod with both hands.  There was a small deficit in right-hand casting, but not much. 

The effect stuck around for another couple of hours after we stopped fishing for the day.  Just before supper, the limp was back and the arm stiffened.  I didn’t care.  I was still grinning about the idea of my brain being somewhat “flooded” with reward dopamine.  Could that type of dopamine actually have a positive impact on my PD symptoms?  I don’t know enough about neuroscience to answer the question.  Was it some kind of placebo effect?  Honestly, I still don’t care.  Either way, I can now happily admit that I’m addicted to fly angling.

It would be negligent of me to stop here and not mention the other benefits of fly angling for folks with Parkinson's Disease.  ANYTHING that gets PD sufferers moving is a good thing.  I'm usually out walking the banks of a creek or trails though the woods, sometimes a couple miles at a time when I fish.  Wading in a creek can challenge your balance.  I use a wading staff or a guide's shoulder when things get uncertain (I really don't want to fall), but the challenge is what makes it productive.  No need to take my word for it when you can get it straight from a fly-angling doctor who also has PD:


I might have to save my pennies for that trip.  Sea-run dolly varden are now officially on the bucket list!

This was Part IV in the chronicles of my Spring 2016 pilgrimage to the Missouri River in Montana.  If you haven't already, you're invited to rewind to Part I (delays, delays), Part II (a slow day on the river... or was it?), and Part III (new toys to play with!).  Finally, Part V (Report on the last day of fishing) concludes the series.


  1. http://commons.pacificu.edu/pa/450/

    I agree the fishing did it! Exercise also raises dopamine levels... that is why those cray-cray runners do it. The link above is a recent article on biking and PD. NBC news also had a video on it. Have your tried a stationary bike before fishing?

    1. Stationary bike? What's that? :)

      I've read some other studies and results about cycling, with the tandem biking results being the most interesting. The closest I get is two miles on my elliptical machine almost every morning, with at least 90 seconds at an intense pace. SOmetimes I do it in the evening, too. Sometimes I wish I was still in Laramie and could just drive 4 blocks to the pool for 45 minutes of swimming...

  2. I am fortunate to have left side, being right handed. Yet, have found since being diagnosed that you seem to reach for more things with your off-hand. I'm with you on this one. When I am in the water wading...no tremor in my leg. And through the course of the days fishing, my hand even calms down. It is therapy of a different kind. :)

    1. You know, Ralph, I was initially spooked by the idea that Parkinson's had selected my dominant hand. Looking back, one of the strongest signals that something was going sideways in my brain was my handwriting. For 3 years it got worse and worse, until I took too much effort to take handwritten notes in meetings.

      Thanks for reinforcing the idea with your experience as well. If we're lucky, maybe there are some neuroprotective benefits!

      I am also quite pleased with the fact that I learned to cast left-handed. On a good day, I'm an ambidextrous caster, which gives me a bit of an advantage and GREATLY reduces frustration.

      I will also be paying more attention when I fish. I now understand that there are some amazing placebo effects for Parkinson's patients, but don't think I really care whether it's real dopamine or other compensatory mechanisms elsewhere in the brain.

      IN early May, we turn the Mobile Hotel® (aka 5th wheel RV) into a cabin, parked maybe 30 feet from atrout creek. It will stay there thru Father's Day, and we'll spend six weekends there. I'll be paying close attention to how I feel when I'm out fishing each weekend. Even better, my daughter wants to come out with me on some of my morning advantures!

  3. I think everything that I have read about most diseases is the less you do the less you can do. Fly fishing is a known stimulant of a lot of different bodily processes. Isn't the human body wonderful?

    1. Newton's First Law, extended version: An object in motion tends to stay in motion. An object at rest tends to stay at rest. A human object with an illness tends to remain at rest and increase it's resistance to motion.

      The human body is indeed wonderful, capable of miraculous adaptations. For example, my son's heart did not develop correctly in utero. The pulmonary valve never opened because of a big hole between chambers in his heart. With no path for blood to get to his lungs, he should have died within a few minutes of joining us in the air breathing world. Instead, his body had grown extra blood vessels that branched from his aorta to his lungs, providing a path for a surprising amount of blood to flow into his lungs. Considering I feel like I slithered out of the shallow end of the gene pool, I'll give all the credit to his mother's genetics, and perhaps a little intervention of the kind that can't be defined by science.

  4. I don't see how catching fish couldn't release dopamine in the brain. It's a euphoric experience and even though you can do it multiple times each catch is a different scenario making it fresh. It never gets repetitive or boring. I guess you could slowly build up a tolerance for it similar to drugs. I think for that to happen you'd have to fish the same river every day. Luckily we're not trapped to that situation.

    1. Hey, Kevin - No argument from me about dopamine and catching fish. That's why I admitted to being an addict. The part of the neuroscience I'm uncertain about is whether dopamine from the reward system can influence the motor control systems that Parkinson's Disease usually affects. They are separate circuits/systems in the brain that might not necessarily have direct connections for the dopamine to move freely between. Dopamine does not cross the blood/brain barrier, so it can't get moved around through that channel.

      In the end, it doesn't really matter. Cool stuff happened, and I hope to feel it again. Soon. I've just always been the ultra-nerdy type who loves the scientific method. I'm the kind of guy who screams at the TV during episodes of Mythbusters when they claim their entertains (which is awesome) is pure science. I've been asked to leave the room by family members... ;)

    2. I'm a very logical person. I want things to make sense but there are times when I think we're not supposed to know why things happen. No matter how hard we try we just will never know and I think that's meant to be. If something good is happening and you can link it with an activity or some behavior why worry about the why? Just enjoy it.

    3. I've spent my life dedicated to logic, equations, and scientific analysis. Old habits die hard, old dogs & new tricks. Parkinson's is my new instructor, and sometimes I'm a slow learner. I agree with your perspective. I just forget most of the time.