How taking a Parkinson's disease wonder drug apparently makes some people want to gamble and have sex all the time

Wayne Kanuch's gambling addiction dropped him to his knees -- literally.

He spent nights searching for lost wallets between cars in the parking lot outside Sam Houston Race Park. Crawling the tile floors for discarded betting slips. Begging for change from the ladies at the concession stand.

"I did things that people with any pride wouldn't do," Kanuch says. "Anything to scrape enough money for a bet."

Wayne Kanuch estimates he gambled away $250,000 
after taking Mirapex.
Daniel Kramer
Wayne Kanuch estimates he gambled away $250,000 after taking Mirapex.
Kanuch spent much of his time betting on the 
simulcast races at Sam Houston Race Park.
Daniel Kramer
Kanuch spent much of his time betting on the simulcast races at Sam Houston Race Park.

It's a Friday evening. The rains have cleared and the track is packed with young families and cruising teenagers, giving it the air of a suburban mall.

Kanuch points out the regulars, who sit alone with pencils poised, bifocals slid to the tips of their noses, eyes glued to the televised simulcast races. Like working stiffs, they hunch over the long, narrow tables, papers spread out before them.

Kanuch knows them because he was one of them. He clocked many 14-hour days at the track -- placing bets, he says, "from bell to bell."

It was a job, and a burdensome one at that.

"I could see I was destroying my life," he says, "but I couldn't stop."

And he couldn't see why.

After all, until a few years ago the 51-year-old Kanuch had visited casinos and racetracks only a half-dozen times in his life, never losing more than a couple hundred bucks. Even when he played poker with pals, the ante was 25 cents and the pot rarely exceeded a few singles.

He had a life -- a good life. A wife of 20 years. Two sons. Family vacations. A high-paying job at Texaco. A big house in a suburb northwest of Houston.

In 1993 Kanuch was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, forcing him to slow down. But the illness didn't get him down. He's not the depressive type.

"I'm just an even-keel, somewhat studious, fun-loving, easy-to-get-along-with type of person," he says.

The compulsion to gamble struck suddenly, inexplicably, six years ago. And there were other changes in his behavior.

Sexual urges overwhelmed him. He began to demand intercourse from his wife five, six times a day. He tried to perform throughout the night -- night after night.

"I couldn't satisfy myself," he says. "I couldn't get enough of it."

His persistence would turn into aggression.

Again, he couldn't see why.

Kanuch checked himself into Memorial Spring Shadows Glen psychiatric hospital on Gessner. Doctors prescribed antidepressants, advised him to attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings. But nothing helped.

Several years passed.

Then one day earlier this year Kanuch had an epiphany.

He cried as he watched a media report that described a new medical study showing a link between compulsive, self-destructive behavior and drugs prescribed to Parkinson's patients. In a small segment of users, the medications affected areas of the brain in ways similar to cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

People who had never gambled before were suddenly wagering all their savings. People who had never cheated on their spouses were secretly acting out sexual fantasies with multiple partners. People who had never had weight problems were packing on as much as 50 pounds in a matter of months.

Kanuch took solace that he wasn't alone. That somehow he really wasn't to blame for his behavior. And, most heartening of all, that his compulsions would disappear after he was weaned off the medication.

But by then it was too late.

The typical Parkinson's patient is no thrill-seeker. He's risk-averse and exhibits a rigid, focused personality. He doesn't gamble. He isn't hypersexual. He doesn't bungee-jump or skydive. He doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs.

For him, there's no real high in getting high.

That's because Parkinson's patients suffer from a dopamine deficiency in the brain. The lack of dopamine -- a chemical that transmits messages from one brain cell to another -- affects body movement, causing classic symptoms such as joint stiffness, tense muscles, a stooped posture, a shuffling gait and tremors.

Also, though such effects are less widely known and understood, low dopamine levels can limit emotional responses and the ability to experience pleasure and pain.

So neurologist Mark Stacy knew something was fishy when in 1998 he examined two Parkinson's patients in the same week whose spouses complained that their husbands had gambled away some $60,000 each since their last visit with him just three months earlier. Both of these patients were taking dopamine agonists -- a class of new FDA-approved drugs used to mimic the role of dopamine.

During the next year Stacy conducted a study of nearly 1,900 patients, most of whom were prescribed dopamine agonists. Of these, he identified nine patients with no prior history of gambling problems who developed gambling addictions while on the drugs. In seven of those cases, the gambling began within weeks of starting the dosage. One of these patients committed suicide apparently after gambling herself into huge debt.

Stacy also reported that the urge to gamble dissipated in patients as they were weaned off the medications.

Despite the evidence, Stacy says, he was reluctant to publish his findings. He reasoned that the drugs led to pathological behavior in a mere tiny percentage of patients. That the drugs worked extremely well for others who didn't suffer from such side effects. And that the drugs had some major benefits over levodopa, long the gold standard in Parkinson's treatment.

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