Parkinson Center Celebrates 25th Year With Hope for Future Treatment

As one of the world’s most comprehensive and interdisciplinary centers for Parkinson’s disease celebrates its 25th anniversary, doctors at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix are predicting dramatic changes for Parkinson’s disease treatment in the next quarter century.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder with no definitive cause and no known cure that affects more than 1 million Americans. Led by renowned movement disorder neurologist, Holly Shill, MD, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute predicts changes are on the horizon. Dr. Shill has seen medical management and treatment options for Parkinson’s disease come a long way in the last 25 years and is hopeful for the future.

“Our patients are living longer, higher quality lives after being diagnosed because we have better understandings about the medical, surgical, and supportive interventions that are available today,” says Dr. Shill, who she started her career at Barrow as a neurology resident in 1995, two years before the center was officially established.

“Research,” she adds, “is still incredibly important. I truly believe that over the next 25 years, research efforts – at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center and in the Parkinson’s community around the world – will lead to groundbreaking discoveries that will help us stop Parkinson’s progression in its tracks.”

Research Initiatives

Some of the Center’s research focuses on genetic investigations while other landmark clinical studies the Center is part of, like the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) study, observe newly diagnosed patients to better understand Parkinson’s onset and progression. The PPMI study in particular aims to help expedite the development of new and improved treatments, which are incredibly important tools in the ongoing battle that neurologists face.

Holly Shill, MD, FAAN

Other exciting research initiatives at the Center involve infusions and brain mapping; light therapy for sleep problems; investigating potential environmental exposure links in mining and welding; using virtual reality style goggles to study eye movement patterns; the effects of deep brain stimulation (DBS) on gait and falls; and using palliative care to examine outcome predictors and identify different ways to intervene to improve outcomes.

“I am very proud of our team here at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center,” said Dr. Shill. “We are at the forefront of finding answers. Our team is devoted to increasing access to care and research by educating future neurologists, offering virtual and telemedicine opportunities, and breaking language barriers with cultural sensitivity.”

Establishing the Center

Founded at Barrow on March 18, 1997 thanks to philanthropists and a unique friendship between three-time world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali and his movement disorder neurologist, Abraham Lieberman, MD, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center has seen tremendous growth over the years. It is estimated that the Center treated more than 10,000 patients in the first ten years, and has provided care to more than 50,000 people since opening its doors.

Muhammad was proud to lend his name to the Center when it opened, and I know he would be proud of where it is now and how far reaching it has become.

Lonnie Ali

The 26,450-square-foot facility is located on what is now officially named Muhammad Ali Way at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. It is a Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence and a world leader in deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery for the treatment of movement disorders. In addition to world-class neurological and rehabilitation therapy care, the Center is also known for its cutting-edge research and robust outreach programs which include recreational therapies, educational workshops, support groups, and an acclaimed Hispanic Outreach Program that is also celebrating its 15th anniversary this spring.

The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center has become a beacon of hope for Parkinson’s patients from around the world by continuing to uphold the mission set forth by its late namesake and his wife, Lonnie Ali, to treat every patient and caregiver with the same level of outstanding care that Ali received after his 1984 diagnosis.

Lonnie Ali

“When Muhammad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I knew he would fight it with the same strength, courage, and determination that he brought with him every single time he stepped into the ring,” says Lonnie. “From the outset, Muhammad and I had a shared vision of building the greatest Parkinson’s center in the world, to help those in need of it most by providing a place where patients and caregivers have someone fighting for them in their corner. That is the lasting impact of Muhammad’s legacy.”

Lonnie believes the Center is an example of Muhammad’s spirit, noting that there is nowhere like it in the world. She credits the team of physicians, nurses, therapists, and support staff who are dedicated to providing all patients and caregivers with the best possible care and support, to help them to maintain their dignity, independence, and quality of life while battling the disease.

“Muhammad was proud to lend his name to the Center when it opened, and I know he would be proud of where it is now and how far reaching it has become,” she adds.

Patient Experience

“Finding the right connections can make an incredible impact on your life after diagnosis,” explains Julie Raymond, 65, who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in June 2021 after she noticed extreme fatigue, a tremor in her hand, and stiffness in her arm. “I have learned so much since I started participating in the programs offered by the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.”

A retired banker and proud grandmother, Raymond says she does what she can to stay positive and has made a number of lifestyle changes, like exercising and eating better.

Julia Raymond and her husband, Russ, participating in a virtual PD Self class with instructor Patty Hatton

She’s also participated in many of the Center’s offerings including a clinical trial, education classes, the PD SELF seminar for patients and caregivers, a support group for newly diagnosed patients and a Pilates class, as well as a number of other activities offed at the Valley of the Sun JCC for people with Parkinson’s disease.

“Some days it still feels frustrating and, honestly, sometimes terrifying,” admits Raymond who volunteers for the Glendale Police Victim Assistance Unit and likes to knit, craft, and play piano – all skills that could one day be affected by the disease. “I try to stay hopeful and positive. I just take each day as it comes, knowing that while I don’t always feel better, at least I don’t feel worse and I know that I am doing everything I can to take care of myself. I wish that someday there will be a cure.”

April is International Parkinson’s Awareness Month. Typically found in older adults, the average age of Parkinson’s disease onset is 60 years old. However, it can occur in and is on the rise among younger adults between 30 and 40 years old. Men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease, and Hispanic and Caucasian ethnicities are the most affected, with the prevalence of the disease highest in developed countries.