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Quick Brain Scan May Find Early Parkinson’s

June 20, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging, Neuroradiology
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Functional MRI brain scans appear to be able to diagnose Parkinson’s disease in its early stages, giving victims the benefit of early treatment, according to researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Clare E. Mackay, PhD, explained the import of the findings:

At the moment we have no way to predict who is at risk of Parkinson’s disease in the vast majority of cases. We are excited that this MRI technique might prove to be a good marker for the earliest signs of Parkinson’s. The results are very promising.

Dr. Mackay, a senior research fellow in psychiatry at Oxford,  was one of the study’s lead researchers and is a senior author of an article about the study that was published online last week in Neurology. She was quoted in a university news release.

The initial research involved 38 subjects: 19 people in the early stages of Parkinson’s but not on medication and 19 healthy controls, matched for age and gender. They were asked to lie still in the scanner and think of nothing in particular while they underwent a quick resting-state fMRI scan.

The scans detected much lower connectivity in the basal ganglia of the Parkinson’s patients. Based on those results, the researchers determined a threshold level of connectivity. Below that threshold were all of the Parkinson’s patients plus a handful of false positives. (The threshold test came in at 100 percent sensitivity, 89.5 percent specificity.)

When applied to a second group of 13 early-stage Parkinson’s patients, the test correctly identified 11 of the 13 as having Parkinson’s—an accuracy rate of 85 percent.

“Our MRI approach showed a very strong difference in connectivity between those who had Parkinson’s disease and those that did not,” Dr. Mackay said. “So much so that we wondered if it was too good to be true and carried out a validation test in a second group of patients. We got a similar result the second time.”

The researchers are now trying the technique on people who have been flagged as having increased risk of Parkinson’s but have not yet been diagnosed with the disease. “We tested it in people with early-stage Parkinson’s,” said neurologist Michele T. M. Hu, MBBS, PhD. “But because it is so sensitive in those patients, we hope it will be able to predict who is at risk of disease before any symptoms have developed. However, this is something that we still have to show in further research.”

Dr. Hu is a member of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at Oxford and was joint lead researcher for the study with Dr. Mackay.

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