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Educating law enforcement on Huntington's Disease

Law enforcement often place people with Huntington's disease in jail

The Huntington Disease Society of America recognizes May as Huntington’s Disease month. Thousands of Iowans suffer from the neurological disorder which affects patients physically, their behavior and their cognitive ability.

“We were initially contacted by an officer in the Des Moines area. He happened to have a neighbor who has Huntington’s disease and he knew that there had been some issues in the past with people with Huntington’s disease and law enforcement,” said former Research Manager for the Huntington’s Disease Center of Excellence Amanda Miller.

The officer reached out to the Huntington’s Disease Center of Excellence at the University of Iowa.

“There are three domains that are affected by Huntington’s disease. There’s the cognitive domain which affects a person’s ability to think clearly and make decisions. There’s behavior domain. They may act irrationally or erratically," said Miller.

Behavior is affected along with the physical domain. The disease affects a patient’s ability to walk straight. Patients make involuntarily jerky movements called chorea. These symptoms often confuse cops who mistake the illness for drinking too much alcohol.

“This is a real problem and in our experience we have definitely had patients who were stopped by the police and arrested and put in jail because they had Huntington’s disease,” said Professor of Neurology at the Carver College of Medicine Dr. John Kamholz, MD, Phd.

“Sometimes patients have dysarthria. So that just means difficulty talking or slurred speech and the slurred speech can definitely sound like the person is drunk and that can just be normal for that person.”

Dr. Kamholz and other doctors participate in studies to help treat symptoms associated with the disease with medications.

Tetrabenzine is a drug that actually reduces transmission of the neurotransmitter dopamine and that’s the way it works to reduce the chorea.”

The Cedar Rapids Police Department has a program to help officers identify individuals with medical issues. Representatives from the Center spend 90 minutes educating officers about the disease.

“It’s not a specially funded activity. It’s something that we do on top on the clinical work that we do at the University. So we don’t say no if someone ask we go and we know the value that this provides someone living with Huntington’s disease.”

To learn more about the center visit their website https://medicine.uiowa.edu.

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