There’s a lot about Parkinson’s disease that researchers do not know for sure, including the genetic and environmental causes of it. What is known, however, is that it is an incurable, progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects the motor system. Over time, those affected by it have extreme difficulty controlling their movement, as well as maintaining their emotional output and cognitive functioning.
Medical professionals are working tirelessly on coming up with potential cures, but in the meantime, early diagnoses are our best option, as they allow the patient to better prepare for a more difficult life in the future with appropriate medication or treatment. With this in mind, a team from the University of Edinburgh have designed a detection test that looks for a specific marker of the disorder using samples of spinal fluid – and so far, it’s proven to be incredibly accurate.
“Further research is needed to test more samples to see if the results continue to hold true, but this could be a significant development towards a future early diagnostic test for Parkinson's,” Beckie Port, a senior research communications officer at Parkinson’s UK, told BBC News.
The test looks for a protein molecule named alpha-synuclein, which forms sticky clumps called “Lewy bodies” within the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s and some variants of dementia. These abnormal protein aggregates displace other cell components within the brainstem or cortex, and ultimately cause cell communication disruption and death.
Looking for this protein as a method of Parkinson’s detection has been impossible in the past as it’s also found in the brains of healthy people, and thus its presence alone cannot indicate whether or not someone has Parkinson’s.
In order to overcome this problem, the team used a highly sensitive technology that not only picks up on the presence of the protein, but also its relative “stickiness”. This approach, which is known as real-time quaking induced conversion, can detect the clumping potential of these proteins to such a degree that it can distinguish between a normal person’s spinal fluid and that belonging to an afflicted patient.
Photographs of regions of a patient's brainstem containing Lewy bodies at varying magnifications. Suraj Rajan/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0
Using a group of 38 patients, the test correctly identified 19 out of 20 samples from patients with Parkinson’s disease, along with three others who were deemed to be at risk from contracting the disorder. In a control group of 15 healthy people, there were no false positives. Although this study, appearing in the journal Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology, uses a small sample size, it is a promising start for an otherwise nascent medical field.
At present, this test can clearly pick up on the presence of the disease. However, the key question is how early on in the progression of the condition can it still register the presence of Lewy bodies, even if the patient isn’t showing any symptoms. Early detection would revolutionize the treatment of Parkinson’s, even if a cure is still proving to be elusive.
“These people could then be given the opportunity to take part in trials of new medicines that may slow, or stop, the progression of disease,” coordinating author Alison Green, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, said in a statement.
It’s worth pointing out that the test could only distinguish patients with a type of dementia associated with Lewy bodies. Dementia linked to other diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, cannot be detected by the same technique, which illustrates just how complex and ultimately enigmatic these various conditions still are to the most cutting-edge of medical researchers.
There is no cure just yet, but early detection is the next best thing, along with treatment. Ocskay Mark/Shutterstock