Parkinson’s breakthrough detects disease decades earlier

Australian researchers have discovered it may be possible to detect early signs of Parkinson’s disease decades before symptoms appear.

Research released by Austin Health and The Florey medical research institute demonstrates it is possible to recognise signs of Parkinson’s disease 20 to 30 years before visible symptoms manifest.

The breakthrough paves the way for the development of early screening programs and preventive treatments that could be initiated before damage becomes permanent and debilitating.

Parkinson’s is the second most common neurological disease in Australia after dementia, affecting around 150,000 people, and 38 new cases are diagnosed each day. Globally, more than 10 million people are living with the disease.

Parkinson’s frequently begins undetected during midlife and can continue that way for decades.

Professor Kevin Barnham says the silent progression makes it extremely difficult to detect Parkinson’s until it’s too late.

“Parkinson’s disease is very hard to diagnose until symptoms are obvious, by which time up to 85 per cent of the brain’s neurons that control motor coordination have been destroyed. At that point, many treatments are likely to be ineffective,” he says.

“Our long-term goal is to find a way to detect the disease much earlier and treat people before the damage is done.”

Prof. Barnham and his team may have done just that.

Detecting Parkinson’s earlier

In a study published in the prestigious journal Neurology, the research team outlines how a biomarker for Parkinson’s, known as F-AV-133, can be combined with positron emission tomography (PET) scans to detect Parkinson’s disease earlier.

In the study, researchers examined 49 individuals – 26 with Parkinson’s disease, 11 with rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder (a known biomarker for Parkinson’s) and 12 completely healthy people as a control.

Individuals were screened for Parkinson’s using currently available methods. These tests detected no significant changes in Parkinson’s symptoms in any of the participants.

All participants then underwent the PET scans, which showed “significant neuronal loss” in three key regions of the brain in individuals with Parkinson’s, suggesting F-AV-133 is a more sensitive means of measuring neurodegeneration than what is now available.

What does it mean for the future?

Based on these findings, Prof. Barnham estimates there is an average of 33 years of slow neuronal loss that occurs over the life of a patient with Parkinson’s disease.

This loss can occur in the background for around 10 years before it is able to be detected by a PET scan. Once the scan is able to detect the disease, it will be a further six years at least before motor symptoms appear.

Once physical symptoms begin, a Parkinson’s diagnosis typically occurs in about three years. In total, that’s 22 years after the earliest symptoms appeared before treatment begins, by which time it’s often too late.

Prof. Barnham says the study findings open pathways to developing screening protocols for diagnosing and treating Parkinson’s disease up to 10 years earlier than is currently possible.

Is there a history of Parkinson’s disease in your family? Does this breakthrough encourage you to have a PET scan? Let us know in the comments section below.

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