Fine-tuning MRIs to detect and monitor Parkinson’s disease

An algorithm that analyses MRI scans could be the key to a new method for diagnosing Parkinson’s disease, according to researchers at Nottingham University.

The method would work by detecting changes in a pigment is characteristic to the brains of people suffering from Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s disease is not well understood, and is also notoriously difficult to diagnose. Currently, specialists observe patient’s symptoms and use a variety of tests, but none of them are perfect. Waiting for a diagnosis of Parkinson’s can be lengthy and stressful, and further damages the patients’ health.

The cells in the part of the brain responsible for movement contain a pigment called neuromelanin, which makes them appear dark in scans. In Parkinson’s patients these cells die off, which makes the dark pigmentation disappear. However, this has not been used as a diagnostic test before because there are many different sorts of MRI machine whose sensitivity to the changes in neuromelanin varies. The Nottingham team, led by Dr Stefan Schwarz, has devised an algorithm that compensates for the different types of machine. “This means that the brain scan technique will be accurate regardless of what machine is being used,” Schwartz said. The team discuss their research in the journal Radiology.

The analysis method could also be used to track the progression of disease and determine how severity of symptoms is linked to changes in the brain, one of the factors in Parkinson’s that is still not clear. “This biomarker may help the development of treatments that slow the progression of Parkinson’s,” Schwarz said.

Dr Beckie Port, senior communications officer with the charity Parkinson’s UK, is enthusiastic about the research. “This research is hugely promising,” she said. “In time this could reduce the delays and distress that many people experience when they wait the confirmation of whether or not they have Parkinson’s.”