Does levodopa slow or hasten the rate of progression of Parkinson's disease?

J Neurol. 2005 Oct;252 Suppl 4:IV37-IV42. doi: 10.1007/s00415-005-4008-5.


Levodopa therapy, as originally established by George Cotzias [2, 3], is the most powerful treatment for Parkinson's disease (PD). Levodopa's toxicity to neurons in vitro has raised concerns if it might hasten the progression of PD, although in vivo animal studies suggest it may be neuroprotective.

Objective: To discuss the results of the ELLDOPA trial that was carried out to determine if levodopa therapy influences the rate of progression of Parkinson's disease (PD).

Design: ELLDOPA was a multicenter, parallel-group, double-blind, dosage-ranging, randomized, controlled clinical trial.

Setting: Academic movement disorders clinics at 38 sites in the United States and Canada.

Patients: Three hundred and sixty-one patients with early PD of less than 2 years' duration who did not require symptomatic therapy.

Interventions: Subjects were randomly assigned to one of four treatment groups: carbidopa/levodopa 12.5/50 mg t. i. d. (N=92), 25/100 mg t. i. d. (N=88), 50/200 mg t. i. d. (N=91), or matching placebo (N=90). The dosage was gradually escalated over 9 weeks and then maintained until Week 40, at which time active treatment was withdrawn over 3 days. After 2 weeks without active treatment (Week 42), a final assessment of PD severity was obtained.

Outcome measures: The prespecified primary clinical outcome was the change in the total Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS) between baseline and Week 42, comparing the four treatment groups. The primary neuroimaging component of the study in a subgroup of 142 subjects was the percent change in striatal (123)iodine 2-beta-carboxymethoxy-3-beta-(4-iodophe nyl)tropane (beta-CIT) uptake between baseline and Week 40 visits. The neuroimaging substudy utilized single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) of the dopamine transporter.

Results: All dosages of levodopa exerted clinical benefit compared to placebo on the UPDRS scores throughout the study, including 2 weeks after discontinuing levodopa. The UPDRS scores at Week 42 failed to reach the level encountered in the placebo group (change of 7.8+/-9.0, 1.9+/-6.0, 1.9+/-6.9, and -1.4+/-7.8, for placebo, 150 mg/day, 300 mg/ day, and 600 mg/day, respectively, p<0.0001). Nausea (p=0.001) and dyskinesias (p=0.0001) were more common in the levodopa groups, especially with the higher dosages. Freezing appeared around the same time, but was more common in the placebo (14 %) and 150 mg/day group (10 %). The percent decline of beta-CIT uptake in the striatum was significantly more pronounced in the levodopa groups than the placebo group (-7.2%, -4%, -6%, and -1.4% in 600 mg/day, 300 mg/day, 150 mg/day, and placebo, respectively; p=0.035).

Conclusions: The clinical outcomes not only indicate that levodopa is effective in a dose-dependent manner in overcoming the signs and symptoms of PD, they also support the concept that the drug does not hasten the disease progression, but rather may slow down the rate of the disease. The clinical study failed to demonstrate any evidence of levodopa worsening early PD. However, the beta-CIT SPECT substudy indicates the opposite effect, namely that levodopa causes a more rapid decline in the integrity of the dopamine transporter located in the nigrostriatal nerve terminals in the striatum. These contradictory findings warrant further investigation into the effect of levodopa on PD. OTHER OBSERVATIONS: The ELLDOPA study was the first levodopa dose-response study ever conducted. It showed that dose is a factor in the cause of producing motor complications of dyskinesias and wearing-off, and that these can develop as early as 5 to 6 months. On the other hand, freezing of gait could be delayed or its occurrence reduced by high dosage levodopa, compared to placebo or low-dose levodopa. Withdrawal of levodopa over a 3-day step-down can be safely carried out without inducing the neuroleptic-like syndrome. The UPDRS was shown to be a reliable linear marker for disease progression. The ELLDOPA study also called into question the interpretation of beta-CIT SPECT in the presence of dopaminergic agents. Neuroimaging in ELLDOPA also showed that some people diagnosed with early PD do not have a dopaminergic deficit, calling into question how difficult the correct diagnosis may be in people with early symptoms of PD.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antiparkinson Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Carbidopa / therapeutic use
  • Disease Progression
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Humans
  • Levodopa / therapeutic use*
  • Parkinson Disease / drug therapy*
  • Parkinson Disease / pathology
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antiparkinson Agents
  • Levodopa
  • Carbidopa