A University of Illinois, Chicago neuroscientist says a non-invasive brain scanning technique may trace a biomarker for Parkinson's disease that would let physicians screen for or track the progression of the neurodegenerative disorder.
The tool may also help advance the development of new drugs or neuroprotective agents to treat or ward off Parkinson's.
David Vaillancourt, assistant professor of kinesiology at UIC, and colleagues from UIC and Rush University, used a type of MRI scan called diffusion tensor imaging on 28 subjects, half with early symptoms of Parkinson's and the other half without.
They scanned an area of the brain called the substantia nigra, a cluster of neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Scientists have found about half the number of dopaminergic neurons in certain areas of the substantia nigra in Parkinson's patients as those without the disease.
Usually, finding out the loss of dopaminergic neurons using conventional methods such as metabolic PET scans is expensive, invasive, and requires injection of radioactive tracer chemicals.
But, the new method is non-invasive, relatively inexpensive, and does not use radioactive tracers.
"We're suggesting it's possible to eventually diagnose Parkinson's disease non-invasively and objectively by examining the part of the brain thought to underlie the causes of the disease," said Vaillancourt.
He also said that currently, no other tool is capable of doing the same.
The researchers said that the technique might also help develop neuroprotective agents to treat Parkinson's.
Vaillancourt said it's difficult to identify a neuroprotective agent using current measures because the results are skewed by any therapy used to treat symptoms.
"When you have a symptomatic effect of the neuroprotective agent, you need a lot of patients from multiple centers to determine if the neuroprotective agent works. But if you have a disease marker not affected by a dopaminergic therapy, then you would be able to test neuroprotective agents among smaller groups," he said.
In Vaillancourt's opinion, the new technique would enable faster development of drugs to treat Parkinson's.
The findings, now online, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Neurology.