New brain scanners may help treat cognitive problems in Parkinson’s disease

Credit: Jack Finnigan / Unsplash.

In a study from the University of Cambridge, scientists found that ultra-powerful 7T MRI scanners could be used to help identify those patients with Parkinson’s disease and similar conditions who are most likely to benefit from new treatments for previously-untreatable symptoms.

Both Parkinson’s disease and a related disorder, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), are progressive brain diseases that not only affect movement but also damage motivation and cognition.

These latter symptoms can have a major impact on a patient’s outcome, affecting their survival and general well-being, as well as the stress and costs for families.

In the study, the team used a new ultra-high strength 7T MRI scanner to measure changes in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease, PSP, or in good health.

“7T” refers to the strength of the magnetic field; most MRI scanners tend to be 3T or below.

Patients with Parkinson’s disease and PSP are often treated with drugs such as L-DOPA, which compensate for the severe loss of dopamine. But, dopamine treatment does little for many of the non-motor symptoms.

That is why scientists have begun to turn their attention to noradrenaline, a chemical that plays a critical role in brain functions including attention and arousal, thinking, and motivation.

While most scanners can show structures at the level of detail of a grain of rice, 7T scanners, which have ultra-strong magnetic fields, can provide resolution at the size of a grain of sand.

The scanners allowed the team to examine the locus coeruleus of their subjects and confirm that the greater the level of damage to this region, the more severe their symptoms of apathy and the worse they performed at cognitive tests.

The findings offer the hope of new treatments for these symptoms.

A number of drugs that boost noradrenaline has already been through clinical trials for other conditions, and thus have been shown to be safe and well-tolerated.

The researchers are now leading a clinical trial at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to see if these drugs alleviate symptoms in PSP.

If you care about Parkinson’s disease, please read studies about Vitamin E that may help prevent Parkinson’s disease, and Vitamin D could benefit people with Parkinson’s disease.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about a new way to treat Parkinson’s disease, and results showing flavonoid-rich foods could improve survival in Parkinson’s disease.

The study was conducted by Professor James Rowe et al and published in the journal Movement Disorders.

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