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Researchers say a new blood test may be able to detect the development of Parkinson’s disease. MaaHoo/Stocksy
  • Researchers are developing a new blood test that they say could detect Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before the onset of symptoms.
  • The potential test was developed using artificial intelligence.
  • The research team said they correctly diagnosed 16 people in the study who went on to develop Parkinson’s disease.

A new blood test might be able to identify Parkinson’s disease years before symptoms show up, according to new research completed at University College London and University Medical Center Goettingen.

The study was published today in the journal Nature Communcations.

In it, researchers described how they developed a blood test that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to detect Parkinson’s disease about seven years before onset.

They analyzed blood samples from 72 study participants with Rapid Eye Movement Behavior Disorder (iRBD). People with this disorder physically act out their dreams without knowing they are doing so. About 75% to 80% of people with iRBD will develop a synucleinopathy – a brain disorder caused by the abnormal buildup of a protein called alpha-synuclein.

The scientists used a machine-learning tool and identified 79% of the people with iRBD as having the same profile as someone with Parkinson’s disease. The AI program analyzed eight blood-based biomarkers altered in people with Parkinson’s.

The research team said they correctly predicted that 16 people in the study would go on to develop Parkinson’s. They were able to do so seven years before the onset of symptoms.

The scientists continued to follow up with the 16 people identified with Parkinson’s to verify the accuracy of the test further.

“The development of a biomarker test for early detection of Parkinson’s disease is a potentially transformative advancement,” said Dr. Daniel Truong, a neurologist and medical director of the Truong Neuroscience Institute at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California and editor in chief of the Journal of Clinical Parkinsonism and Related Disorders. “It could change the landscape of diagnosis, treatment, and research in neurodegenerative diseases.”

“While the promise is substantial, careful validation, ethical considerations, and thoughtful integration into clinical practice will be essential to realize its benefits,” Truong, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Medical News Today. “If successfully implemented, this test could lead to earlier and more effective interventions, ultimately improving the lives of millions of individuals at risk for or living with Parkinson’s disease.”

In a press release, Dr. Michael Bartl, a study co-first author in the Department of Neurology at the University Medical Center Goettingen and Paracelsus-Elena-Klinik Kassel said that “by determining eight proteins in the blood, we can identify potential Parkinson’s patients several years in advance.”

“This means that drug therapies could potentially be given at an earlier stage, which could possibly slow down disease progression or even prevent it from occurring,” he added.

“We have not only developed a test but can diagnose the disease based on markers that are directly linked to processes such as inflammation and degradation of non-functional proteins,” Bartl noted. “So these markers represent possible targets for new drug treatments.”

David Dexter, the director of research at Parkinson’s UK, indicated in a press release that this research is a major step forward in finding a diagnostic test for Parkinson’s and hopes that with more work, the test could distinguish between Parkinson’s and diseases with similarities, such as multiple systems atrophy or dementia with Lewy bodies.

“Currently, we are unable to identify in advance individuals who will develop the disease, even though we know that certain individuals with family history of the disease and genetic mutations, which we can now test for and identify, are at risk for developing Parkinson’s,” said Dr. Alessandro Di Rocco, a neurologist at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital in New York who was not involved in the study.

“Further, before developing the typical motor changes of the disease, such as slowing of movements or tremor, there may be ‘prodromal’ symptoms that can appear a few years earlier,” he told Medical News Today.

According to an article published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease, prodromal symptoms include:

Constipation can appear up to 20 years before motor symptoms. The loss of smell and depression can occur up to 10 years before.

Parkinson’s disease is currently diagnosed through a combination of clinical evaluations, medical history, physical and neurological examinations, and supportive tests such as DaTscan,” Truong explained. “MRI imaging tests help rule out other conditions that may cause similar symptoms, such as strokes, brain tumors, or normal pressure hydrocephalus.

He noted that DaTscans measure the amount of dopamine transporters in the brain.

“It helps differentiate Parkinson’s from other conditions with similar symptoms,” he said.

“Research is ongoing to identify biomarkers that can aid in early diagnosis,” Truong added. “For example, α-synuclein seed amplification assays (SAA) and mass spectrometry-based proteomic phenotyping are promising methods for detecting early molecular changes associated with Parkinson’s disease. Skin biopsy can help identify α-synuclein on the skin.”

“If the test described in the study, which identifies specific biomarkers predicting Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before symptom onset, is successful, it would indeed be a game-changer for several reasons,” Truong said. “It will allow proactive intervention. Early [identification], intervention, and treatment would improve the quality of life. Specific biomarkers would also allow tailored treatments and disease monitoring.”

“Testing could be more easily accessible, and widespread testing could be performed. This would lead to health cost savings,” Truong continued. “The success of such a biomarker test would indeed be transformative in the field of Parkinson’s disease. It would shift the paradigm from reactive treatment to proactive management, allowing for earlier and more personalized interventions. This would not only improve the quality of life for patients but also advance research and potentially lead to significant healthcare cost savings. The combination of early diagnosis, targeted treatments, and better understanding of disease mechanisms could herald a new era in the management and treatment of Parkinson’s disease.”

Di Rocco agrees the test to identify Parkinson’s could be helpful. However, he said effective treatments are also needed.

“Identifying people at high risk for Parkinson’s may be extremely helpful in the future when we may have drugs or other treatments that may delay or prevent the onset of the disease,” Di Rocco explained. “At the moment, however, we do not have any effective treatment for people whom we recognize may be at risk for Parkinson’s and an early prediction will not lead to any practical treatment or specific recommendation other than maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle.”

“While the testing may not have immediate clinical relevance now, these tools may become a key strategy in the future,” he added.