New methods for diagnosing Parkinson's disease | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - June 2006

New methods for diagnosing Parkinson's disease

The cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but it affects parts of the brain and is characterised by movement disorders, where patients can become progressively slow, stiff and shaky. Diagnosis can be difficult, and in its early stages is sometimes confused with the much rarer condition multiple system atrophy.

A team based in Sheffield and funded by Action Medical Research with a £66,373 grant, has been studying levels of iron in the brain to see whether they can be used as a reliable indicator of Parkinson’s disease and its progression.

Using advanced MRI scanning techniques, the team, led by Professor Paul Griffiths at Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield, has looked at a number of Parkinson’s and multiple system atrophy (MSA) patients.

One of the aims is to develop a diagnostic technique to distinguish Parkinson’s disease from MSA at an early stage — and the findings so far have been promising.


Professor Griffiths says, ^”The cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown and its progression varies dramatically from one patient to another.^ Some can have the condition for 30 years with relatively few symptoms; others can become severely disabled by it within two or three years because they do not respond so well to treatment.

“Everyone has some iron in their brain, but we have been looking at whether or not levels are different in Parkinson’s and MSA patients, whether an accumulation of iron is causing some of the neuro-degeneration we see and whether we can use the differences in iron levels to distinguish between Parkinson’s and MSA.”

So far, the team has looked at the relationship between the length of time a person has suffered from Parkinson’s disease and the amount of iron in their brain.

People with Parkinson’s have a larger accumulation of iron in their brains than people who do not have the condition. Iron is essential for a number of brain processes but it was thought that increased levels may be damaging.

Professor Griffiths continues, “We came to this wondering if raised levels of iron in the brain are a cause of the disease or an effect of having it. What we now know is that drugs can reduce levels of brain iron but they do not appear to impact on the progression of the disease.


^”The most significant finding so far is that there is a clear difference in the amounts of brain iron, and the parts of the brain in which it occurs, between people with Parkinson’s and those with MSA.^ There are much higher levels in MSA patients, which could lead us to a more accurate method of diagnosing the condition early. That is very exciting because previously it has been very difficult to distinguish between the two conditions.”

Parkinson’s disease is becoming more common as the UK population ages. Clinical diagnosis is difficult, and one in five patients is told they have Parkinson’s when they are actually suffering from multiple system atrophy. Professor Griffiths continues, “Quite simply, without the money from Action Medical Research, this study could not have gone ahead. We have been able to use the very latest scanning techniques at the hospital, but using the equipment is very expensive.

“It is tremendously important because Parkinson’s affects thousands of people and now our research will focus on people who are newly diagnosed with the disease and compare them with people known to suffer from MSA.”

The one problem now facing the team is finding enough MSA patients to form part of the research. Compared with Parkinson’s disease, it is rare, but the team currently has ten MSA sufferers in the study group.

Professor Griffiths concludes, “Like every good piece of research, our work has raised more questions, and we will be pressing on in the hope that we can find more answers.”

Help us spread the word