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Spinal fluid test may aid early detection of Parkinson's disease

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TUESDAY, Aug. 27 (HealthDay News) -- Testing for certain proteins in spinal fluid may help doctors diagnose Parkinson's disease earlier and determine how fast the movement disorder is likely to advance, according to new research.

The team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania said their discovery of these protein "biomarkers" might also aid in the development of new Parkinson's treatments.

"Biomarkers for Parkinson's disease such as these could help us diagnose patients earlier," study senior author Leslie Shaw, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Penn Medicine, said in a university news release.

Shaw and Dr. John Trojanowski are co-leaders in the bioanalytics core for the Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI), an international study sponsored by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's. They led a team that collected spinal fluid from 102 people. Of these, 63 had early, untreated Parkinson's disease and 39 did not have the disorder (the "control" group).

The investigators examined the levels of five specific substances in the spinal fluid, including amyloid beta, total tau, phosphorylated tau, alpha synuclein and the ratio of total tau to amyloid beta.

The findings revealed that, compared with the healthy control group, people with early stage Parkinson's had lower levels of amyloid beta, tau and alpha synuclein in their spinal fluid.

In addition, patients with lower levels of tau and alpha synuclein had more problems with movement, the study authors noted in the report published Aug. 26 in JAMA Neurology.

The researchers found that patients with early stage Parkinson's and low levels of amyloid beta and tau were more likely to experience falls, freezing and trouble walking. Previous research has shown that this type of motor dysfunction in Parkinson's is associated with more functional disability and a faster decline in thinking skills.

"We are hoping to identify subgroups of Parkinson's patients whose disease is likely to progress at a different rate, as early as possible," noted Trojanowski, who is also director of the Penn Udall Center for Parkinson's Research. "Early prediction is critical, for both motor and dementia symptoms," he said in the news release.

PPMI trial site study leader and professor of neurology, Dr. Matthew Stern, added in the news release that "in addition to biomarker tests, validating risk factors could enable earlier detection of the disease and open new avenues in the quest for therapies that could slow or stop disease progression." Stern is also director of Penn's Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center.

The study authors pointed out that more research is needed to evaluate and confirm the spinal fluid testing procedure.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke provides more information on Parkinson's disease.

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