Australian Researchers Develop New Diagnostic Tool to Spot Early Signs of Parkinson’s

Ana de Barros, PhD avatar

by Ana de Barros, PhD |

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Researchers at Australia’s RMIT University have developed the first tool capable of diagnosing early signs of Parkinson’s disease even before symptoms are visible — offering new prospects for more effective treatments.

Their study, Distinguishing Different Stages of Parkinson’s Disease Using Composite Index of Speed and Pen-Pressure of Sketching a Spiral,” appeared in the journal Frontiers in Neurology.

Until now, no lab tests for Parkinson’s have been available. By the time people seek a neurologist following their first symptoms, nerve cells in the brain have already begun suffering irreversible damage.

Led by chief investigator Dinesh Kumar, the team behind the new diagnostic software hopes its discovery can one day become a standard screening test to spot Parkinson’s in its earliest stages. The tool has shown promising results already, with an accuracy rate of 93 percent.

“Pushing back the point at which treatment can start is critical, because we know that by the time someone starts to experience tremors or rigidity, it may already be too late,” Kumar said in a press release. “We’ve long known that Parkinson’s disease affects the writing and sketching abilities of patients, but efforts to translate that insight into a reliable assessment method have failed – until now.”

Kumar said the customized software his team has developed records how a person draws a spiral and analyses the data in real time.

“The only equipment you need to run the test is a pen, paper and a large drawing tablet. With this tool we can tell whether someone has Parkinson’s disease and calculate the severity of their condition,” he said. “While we still have more research to do, we’re hopeful that in future doctors or nurses could use our technology to regularly screen their patients for Parkinson’s, as well as help those living with the disease to better manage their condition.”

Kumar’s team conducted the study in collaboration with Melbourne’s Dandenong Neurology. It involved 62 Parkinson’s patients, half of whom had no visible symptoms. The other half were mildly to severely affected by the disease.

Comparing the effectiveness of different dexterity tasks – including writing a full sentence, individual letters and sequences of letters, as well as sketching a guided Archimedean spiral – the team determined that the spiral was the most reliable and the easiest for participants to complete. Researchers measured the speed and pressure a patient made while drawing the spiral.

This allowed researchers to distinguish not only Parkinson’s patients from controls, but also patients with different disease severity.

“Our study had some limitations so we need to do more work to validate our results, including a longitudinal study on different demographics and a trial of patients who are not taking medication,” said Poonam Zham, an RMIT researcher who specializes in e-health and the development of affordable diagnostic technologies. “But we’re excited by the potential for this simple-to-use and cost-effective technology to transform the way we diagnose Parkinson’s, and the promise it holds for changing the lives of millions around the world.”

According to Shake it Up Australia Foundation, some 80,000 Australians have Parkinson’s, with 32 patients newly diagnosed every day. The number of people with Parkinson’s has increased by 17 percent in the last six years, while costs associated with the disease have jumped by 48 percent over that same period.