Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) has announced her retirement from Congress after being diagnosed with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), a rare neurological disorder that affects movement, balance, speech, and thinking. PSP is a condition that is often misdiagnosed because its early symptoms can resemble those of Parkinson’s disease, multiple system atrophy, and certain other neurodegenerative disorders.
Initially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Wexton sought additional medical opinions after realizing that her symptoms did not correspond with those of other members of her Parkinson’s support group. The neurologist who examined her ended up modifying her diagnosis to PSP, which is more aggressive and progressive than Parkinson’s. PSP is a condition with no known cure, and there are no treatments that have been proven to slow its progression.
Wexton shared her diagnosis on social media and explained that, while treatments exist for PSP, they are not as effective as those available for Parkinson’s. In an interview with the Washington Post, the Congresswoman expressed her determination to continue serving in Congress, but her condition did not improve as expected, leading to her ultimate decision to retire.
The hallmark feature of PSP is difficulty moving the eyes, particularly in the vertical direction (up and down). The term “supranuclear” refers to the fact that the problem doesn’t lie in the eye muscles themselves or their direct nerve supply, but rather in the brain centers that control these muscles. Key symptoms of PSP include: eye movement abnormalities, balance problems, rigidity, speech and swallowing difficulties, and frontal lobe dysfunction.
Expressing her sorrow over the decision, Wexton wrote, “I’m heartbroken to have to give up something I have loved after so many years of serving my community.” Her priority now is spending quality time with her family, including her husband Andrew and their children.
Wexton reiterated her gratitude to the people of Virginia for the trust they have placed in her and affirmed her dedication to continuing her work for the remainder of her term. Despite the unexpected challenges brought on by her disease, she cherishes the connections she’s made and the impact she’s had on her community.
The exact cause of PSP is unknown, but it involves the degeneration of brain cells in specific areas of the brain. An abnormal accumulation of a protein called tau is found in the brains of individuals with PSP. Despite decades of research and thousands of studies, the underlying mechanisms of the accumulation of tau proteins in PSP remain relatively poorly understood.
While there are no cures for PSP, treatment can focus on managing symptoms. Some individuals with PSP may benefit from certain Parkinson’s disease medications, but their effectiveness tends to be limited. In the meantime, Wexton is focused on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, eating right, and ensuring adequate rest, as well as sharing her journey authentically with others.