‘Back to the Future’ Inspires Effort to Detect Parkinson’s in Its Earliest Phases

Ana de Barros, PhD avatar

by Ana de Barros, PhD |

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Back to the Future

New research by the Leibniz-Institut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) aims to make possible the early detection of Parkinson’s disease (PD) by using strongly magnetized xenon gas to enhance magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. The project, funded by a nearly $350,000 three-year award from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, was, in a way, inspired by the “Back to the Future” movie trilogy that made Michael J. Fox a star.

The FMP project plays on the idea of a “flux compensator,” which Doc Brown and his DeLorean used in the films to enable time travel.

Magnetic flux — a concept used to describe the strength of magnetic fields — forms the basis of MRI scans, the physics of which involves the interaction of matter with electromagnetic fields. The concept of magnetic flux in MRI could be applied in the medical setting to obtain more robust magnetic fields, achieving sharper images and faster data acquisition. Researchers have been working to develop methods in which detected molecules are controlled in a way so that they can emit an enhanced signal — much as they would do if in a significantly stronger magnetic field — a kind of “flux compensator.”

One such method consists of using very intense infrared laser light to improve the magnetization of the gas xenon. The obtained signal strengths are able to detect previously inaccessible, small amounts of substance.

The “Molecular Imaging” group at FMP, a Berlin institute, have been working on an MRI method based on precisely such a compensator — again, using relatively low magnetic flux to match conditions as if under much stronger fields — and have demonstrated its potential.

In the new project, to be led by physicist Leif Schröder, the researchers will evaluated whether their method can be used to early detect PD. Specifically, during the next three years, they will use an artificially magnetized xenon to develop a new contrast agent for MRI.

Specifically, this contrast agent will be used to detect the presence of a protein called α-synuclein, whose deposits are believed to be a cause of PD. If successful, the contrast agent will spot the presence of the protein, via a signal change of the xenon, before the formation of protein deposits might occur at harmful levels.

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