Parkinson's disease has long been a difficult disease to diagnose accurately. Typically patients who are thought to have the disease are treated with medication. If the medication is effective in treating the symptoms of the disease, they are then thought to have it.
However, all of that may change - if new research is confirmed by others.
Researchers at Michigan State University have identified a new, non-invasive way to diagnose Parkinson's disease that they say has proven to be effective more than 90 percent of the time.
This new method also has the potential to track the progression of the disease, as well as measure the effectiveness of treatments.
Parkinson's disease is a neurological disorder affecting a half million people in the United States, with 50,000 newly diagnosed cases every year.
It occurs when nerve cells in the brain stop producing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps control muscle movement. Without dopamine, the nerve cells cannot properly send messages, leading to the loss of muscle function.
The new technique involves monitoring a patient's speech patterns, specifically, movement patterns of the tongue and jaw.
"In Parkinson's disease, a common limitation is that the movements become slow and have a reduced range," said Rahul Shrivastav, Ph.D., professor at Michigan State University and a member of the team developing the new method. "We believe we see this pattern in speech too - the tongue doesn't move as far as it should, doesn't move as quickly as it should and produces subtle changes in speech patterns."
This method is particularly sensitive to Parkinson's disease speech, said the researchers, who believe it can be effective in analyzing speech in just 2 seconds.
"That's significant in several ways: The detection methodology is noninvasive, easy to administer, inexpensive and capable of being used remotely and in telemedicine applications," he said.
Presently, there are no tried-and-true methods for diagnosing Parkinson's, according to Shrivastav, who said that if a person is showing early symptoms of the disease, which include tremors, slower movements or rigid muscles, he or she is given a drug to treat the disease.
"If the symptoms go away, then it's assumed you must have Parkinson's disease," he said.
In more advanced cases, symptoms are usually prominent enough that it is fairly easy to diagnose, he added.
While there is no cure for Parkinson's disease, early detection is particularly important since the treatments currently available for controlling symptoms are most effective at that stage, according to the researchers.
Rahul Shrivastav, Ph.D. is a professor and chairperson of Michigan State University's Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders.
Source: Michigan State University--Courtesy of PsychCentral