AMES, Iowa — For patients dealing with Parkinson’s disease, a tremor in their hands may be the first symptom they notice. While this is a common sign, it’s not always a reliable gauge of an otherwise difficult disease to diagnose in its early stages. A team at Iowa State University say they’ve made a breakthrough in Parkinson’s research which may lead to an extremely accurate way of spotting the condition. Their study reveals a simple skin test can identify changes in the body caused by the disease.
Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological disorder which impairs movement, causes stiffness and a loss of balance. The symptoms commonly include tremors in the hands and slurred speech that worsens over time. Currently, there is no cure for the disease.
Prof. Anumantha Kanthasamy says Parkinson’s is particularly hard to diagnose and doctors often misdiagnose it early on. Even worse, the disease is only definitively diagnosed through an autopsy following the patient’s death.
The study finds the new skin examination detects clumping in alpha-synuclein proteins. Misfolded alpha-synuclein proteins accumulating in the brain are a telltale sign of Parkinson’s. These buildups lead to neuronal damage, bringing on the impaired motor functions in patients. While these clumps center in the brain, study authors say they’re also detectable in skin and tissue samples.
“Since there’s no easy and reliable test available for the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease at present, we think there will be a lot interest in the potential use of skin samples for diagnosis,” says Kanthasamy, a distinguished professor of Biomedical Sciences at Iowa State in a university release.
Tests reveal incredible accuracy in detecting Parkinson’s
Researchers conducted a blind study of 50 skin samples, including 25 Parkinson’s patients and 25 people without neurological disorders. Using a protein chemical assay, the skin test correctly diagnosed 24 out of 25 Parkinson’s patients. Only one of the 25 control samples tested positive for protein clumping.
“These results indicate tremendously high sensitivity and specificity which is critical for a diagnostic test,” Dr. Charles Adler, a professor of neurology at Mayo Clinic Arizona says.
“The clinical diagnostic accuracy for early-stage PD has been quite poor, only around 50-70%. And since clinical trials really need to be done at an early stage to avoid further brain damage, they have been critically hampered because they have been including large percentages of people who may not actually have the disease,” study co-investigator Dr. Thomas Beach explains. “Improving clinical diagnostic accuracy is, in my view, the very first thing we need to do in order to find new useful treatments for PD.”
Kanthasamy says the results show great promise which could lead to a reliable way to detect Parkinson’s. Early detection can also help other researchers get their therapeutic treatments to patients faster; potentially stopping the disease before it advances.
The study appears in the journal Movement Disorders.