The levodopa test is a highly reliable diagnostic test used to determine whether motor symptoms such as tremors in the limbs, rigidity in the muscles, and problems with walking, balance and fine motor coordination, are caused by Parkinson’s disease.

Levodopa is the gold standard treatment used to treat Parkinson’s disease.  Improvement in motor symptoms when levodopa is given is regarded as a positive diagnosis for Parkinson’s.

Clinical basis of the levodopa test

Parkinson’s disease is difficult to diagnose, especially in the early stages. Several neurological diseases such as atypical Parkinsonian disorders show similar symptoms to Parkinson’s disease, but have different causes. There is no single test that can definitively identify Parkinson’s disease, and 5 to 10 percent of patients are misdiagnosed. Up to 20 percent of patients who are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease are later found to have other conditions.

Parkinson’s disease is characterized by low levels of a neurotransmitter (a cell-signaling molecule) called dopamine in the brain. This is caused by the death of dopaminergic (dopamine-producing) neurons in a region of the brain called the substantia nigra, which regulates motor functions and normal physical activity. This causes progressive deterioration of motor functions in Parkinson’s disease patients resulting in typical motor symptoms (tremors, rigidity, problems with walking or balance, and fine motor coordination).

Levodopa is the precursor of dopamine that, unlike dopamine, can cross the blood-brain barrier. Once inside the brain, it is converted into dopamine by the enzyme, dopa decarboxylase (also called amino acid decarboxylase) and replenishes dopamine levels, thereby restoring or improving motor function. That is why patient response to levodopa can be used to distinguish Parkinson’s disease from other neurological conditions.

How the levodopa test is conducted

The levodopa test is given at least eight hours after the patient’s last dose of any medication to boost dopamine levels in the brain (levodopa or dopamine agonists) and usually takes place in the morning. Motor functions are analyzed before the test and again 60 to 90 minutes after taking levodopa using part 3 of the unified Parkinson’s disease rating scale (UPDRS).

Motor function parameters analyzed include:

  • Speech (volume and diction)
  • Facial expressions
  • Rigidity
  • Finger and toe-tapping
  • Hand movements
  • Leg agility
  • Degree of difficulty while rising from a chair
  • Gait (shuffling, difficulty walking, or freezing of gait)
  • General posture
  • Postural instability (difficulty recovering balance)
  • Global spontaneity of movement
  • Tremor at rest.

If the scores of these parameters show significant improvement after taking levodopa, this indicates Parkinson’s disease. If the scores remain the same before and after taking levodopa, it suggests a non-Parkinson’s neurological disease.

Evaluation of the levodopa test

Patient symptoms before and after administration of levodopa are scored using the UPDRS scoring system. The UPDRS evaluation has four parts:

  • intellectual function
  • mood, and behavior
  • activities of daily living
  • motor functions and complications

Each of the four parts has multiple parameters that are scored individually, using zero for normal or no problems, 1 for minimal problems, 2 for mild problems, 3 for moderate problems, and 4 for severe problems. These scores are added to determine the severity of the disease. A score of 199 points is the worst and means total disability; a score of 0 means no disability. In the case of the levodopa test, motor improvement observed as a change in part 3 of the UPDRS is commonly referred to as the “levodopa response.”

Other details

The levodopa test has an accuracy of 80-83 percent according to several clinical studies. The diagnostic accuracy can be further improved by taking into account the medical history and the results of a physical or neurological examination.

The levodopa test is rapid and economical compared to imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scans, or dopamine transporter scan (DaTscan).

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Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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Ana holds a PhD in Immunology from the University of Lisbon and worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Instituto de Medicina Molecular (iMM) in Lisbon, Portugal. She graduated with a BSc in Genetics from the University of Newcastle and received a Masters in Biomolecular Archaeology from the University of Manchester, England. After leaving the lab to pursue a career in Science Communication, she served as the Director of Science Communication at iMM.