Impossible thought – A new method could diagnose Parkinson’s disease at an early stage


Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that causes involuntary or uncontrolled movements such as tremors, stiffness, and problems with balance and coordination.

Parkinson’s disease can be detected in its early stages through the use of special brain scans.

Parkinson’s disease is a debilitating brain condition that worsens over time and affects sufferers’ ability to walk and even talk. It is difficult to diagnose, and in the early stages – impossible.

Most of us are familiar with a method known as MRI, which is often used to visualize the structure of the brain. However, it is currently only used to rule out other potential diagnoses because it is not sensitive enough to show the biological changes that occur in the brains of patients with Parkinson’s.

Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU), led by Professor Aviv Mezer, have come to the conclusion that by modifying a related method known as quantitative MRI (qMRI), it may be possible to reveal cellular changes in Parkinson’s disease. Using their technique, they were able to examine the microstructures of the striatum, an area of ​​the deep brain known to degenerate as Parkinson’s disease progresses.

Parkinson's MRI images

MRI images used for automatic detection of microstructural changes in patients with early-stage Parkinson’s disease (PD). In yellow, areas of the putamen where patients with PD show tissue damage, compared to healthy controls. Credit: Mezer Lab/Hebrew University

Using a new analysis method, developed by Mezer’s doctoral student, Elior Drori, biological changes in the vena cava tissue of the striatum were clearly revealed. Additionally, they were able to demonstrate that these changes were associated with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and movement dysfunction in patients. Their findings were recently published in the prestigious journal Scientists progress.

qMRI achieves its sensitivity by taking multiple MRI images using different excitation energies – rather than taking the same photograph in different illumination colors. The HU researchers were able to use their qMRI analysis to reveal changes in tissue structure in distinct regions of the striatum. The structural sensitivity of these measurements could previously only have been achieved in laboratories examining the brain cells of post-mortem patients. This is not an ideal situation for detecting a disease early or monitoring the effectiveness of a drug!

“When you don’t have measurements, you don’t know what’s normal and what’s abnormal brain structure, and what changes as the disease progresses,” Mezer explained. The new information will facilitate early diagnosis of the disease and provide “markers” to monitor the effectiveness of future drug therapies.

“What we discovered,” he continued, “is just the tip of the iceberg.” It’s a technique they will now expand to study microstructural changes in other regions of the brain. Additionally, the team is currently developing qMRI into a tool that can be used in the clinical setting. Mezer predicts it’s about 3-5 years later.

Drori further suggests that this type of analysis will allow the identification of subgroups within the population with Parkinson’s disease – some of whom may respond differently to certain medications than others. Ultimately, he sees this analysis as “leading to personalized treatment, enabling future drug discovery, with each person receiving the most appropriate drug.”

Reference: “Mapping microstructural gradients of the human striatum in normal aging and Parkinson’s disease” by Elior Drori, Shai Berman and Aviv A. Mezer, July 15, 2022, Scientists progress.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm1971

The study was funded by the Israel Science Foundation.


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