WASHINGTON - Muhammad Ali, who used to fling physical and verbal jabs with dazzling speed, was honored yesterday for championing research into the disease that has slowed his gait and virtually silenced his voice.
His hands trembling and his face managing nothing more than an impish smile, Ali received the public service award of the Society for Neuroscience.
He and his wife, Lonnie Ali, have toured the country raising awareness of Parkinson's disease and rallying support for increased funding for research. Ali has suffered from the disease for 20 years.
Muhammad and Lonnie Ali, who have been married for 15 years, shared in the award.
"Parkinson's is indiscriminate when it strikes and in who it strikes," said Lonnie Ali, an obvious reference to the three-time champion who was once an athletic marvel.
The ceremony was held over lunch at the Cannon House Office Building, where Ali looked on with a mostly blank expression that gave his face the appearance of a mask.
His hands shook as he raised bits of food to his mouth. Both his face and his waistline have become soft and pudgy - a result, according to his wife, of his penchant for sweets.
"Muhammad does pretty well when he sticks to his diet," she said before lunch.
Asked if that was a problem, she said: "Oh yeah, that's why you don't see dessert in front of him." Later, a fruit pie somehow made its way to Ali's plate, and he nibbled at it as scientists talked of progress into Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other brain diseases.
The Alis are particularly excited about the prospects of stem-cell transplants, a burgeoning technology that may someday enable surgeons to restore cells that are killed in the Parkinson's patient.
Introducing Ali was Dr. Mahlon DeLong, a preeminent Parkinson's expert from Atlanta who is also Ali's personal physician.
It was once assumed that Ali's problems were a result of the repeated blows to the head he incurred in the ring. But DeLong said he is convinced that Ali developed classic Parkinson's independent of boxing.
"There are no indications that this is anything other than Parkinson's," DeLong said.
Tests revealed that Ali had no brain damage beyond the small portion of the brain responsible for Parkinson's. If boxing had been the cause, tests would have revealed wider damage.
Typically, boxers who have suffered brain damage from the sport develop a "punch drunk" syndrome that resembles Alzheimer's. But Ali's intelligence and wit are intact, DeLong said.
DeLong said Ali had refused a brain operation called a pallidotomy. The surgery eases symptoms, DeLong said, and Ali would have been an ideal candidate. Ali has previously said that the operation was dangerous. DeLong had another explanation.
"Parkinson's was not something he wanted to focus attention on," DeLong said. "For him, this has been a nuisance, an obstacle, something he didn't want to interfere with his goals."
Though he had trouble rising from his chair and shuffled out of the room when the festivities were over, Ali clearly delighted in the attention. He stopped to distribute photographs of a healthier, smiling Ali of earlier days. Several people crowded around, overjoyed by their good luck.
Lonnie Ali had charged ahead, unaware at first of her husband's activities.
"Come on, Muhammad," she said, looking back in mixed amusement and despair. "You've got Senators waiting for you."