AI blood tests could predict Parkinson's disease seven years before symptoms appear

ITV News' Health Correspondent Rebecca Barry reports on what the advancement could mean for patients.

Blood tests and artificial intelligence (AI) could predict Parkinson's disease seven years before symptoms appear in a "major step forward" in diagnosing the condition.

Scientists have said early prediction and diagnosis are key to finding treatments that can slow or even stop Parkinson's.

Around one in 37 people alive today will be diagnosed with Parkinson's, and around 153,000 people are already living with it in the UK, according to Parkinson's UK.

The condition progressively damages parts of the brain and causes the death of nerve cells leading to them being unable to create a chemical called dopamine.

Emma Lawton was diagnosed with Parkinson's when she was 29 years old.

Speaking to ITV News, she said: 'Parkinson's robs you of control, and this would give you so much power as a newly diagnosed person to know in advance and do something about it'

Currently, people living with Parkinson's are treated with dopamine replacement therapy after they have already developed symptoms such as tremors or slowness of movement.

Making use of AI, scientists think they can provide earlier diagnosis and treatment to help protect the dopamine-producing brain cells.

"To have that foresight and planning, it's incredible," said Emma Lawton while speaking to ITV News.

Originally diagnosed with Parkinson's when she was just 29 years old, she said that if "you're bold and you're brave, and you want to take your life in your own hands, it is an amazing thing they've done."

She said: "One thing that Parkinson's really robs you of is control and any sort of planning. You try to look at your day and say I'll do this like this today because it worked yesterday - there is no pattern or rhythm with it.

"We very much feel, most people I know with Parkinson's, that we have lost that control or any sort of power over our lives. It would just give you so much power as a newly diagnosed person to know in advance and to do something about it."

She also pointed to with foresight she would have done everything she could "stave" off Parkinson's.

Co-first-author Dr Michael Bartl, of University Medical Centre Goettingen and Paracelsus-Elena-Klinik Kassel, alongside Dr Jenny Hallqvist, UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology, said: “By determining eight proteins in the blood, we can identify potential Parkinson’s patients several years in advance.

“This means that drug therapies could potentially be given at an earlier stage, which could possibly slow down disease progression or even prevent it from occurring.”

Professor David Dexter, director of research at Parkinson’s UK, said: “This research, co-funded by Parkinson’s UK, represents a major step forward in the search for a definitive and patient-friendly diagnostic test for Parkinson’s.

“Finding biological markers that can be identified and measured in the blood is much less invasive than a lumbar puncture, which is being used more and more in clinical research.”

The research found that when a branch of AI called machine learning analysed a panel of eight blood-based biomarkers whose concentrations are altered in patients with Parkinson’s, it could provide a diagnosis with 100% accuracy.

Senior author Professor Kevin Mills, of UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, said: “We cannot regrow our brain cells and therefore we need to protect those that we have.

“At present we are shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted and we need to start experimental treatments before patients develop symptoms.”

A simple blood test could predict Parkinson’s disease seven years before symptoms appear, marking a “major step forward” in diagnosis. Credit: PA

He added that with sufficient funding, it is hoped the test will be used by the NHS within two years.

The experts suggest that with further research this test could potentially distinguish between Parkinson’s and other conditions that have some early similarities.

Parkinson's support and advice

  • If you are concerned you may have symptoms of Parkinson's the NHS recommends, in the first instance, that you make an appointment to see your GP. You may then be referred to a specialist for further tests.

  • Support for those living with Parkinson's can be found in a number of organisations, including Parkinson's UK, which operates a free helpline (0808 800 0303).

  • Parkinson's Care and Support UK is a charity that focuses on improving the lives of those affected by Parkinson's, whilst they are alive. Anyone who wishes to contact them can do so via their helpline (020 3380 2573) or website.

The researchers are hoping to secure funding to create a simpler test where a drop of blood can be spotted on a card and posted to the lab to investigate if it can predict Parkinson’s even earlier than the seven years before the onset of symptoms in this study.

The research, which was funded by an EU Horizon 2020 grant, Parkinson’s UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Research GOSH Biomedical Research Centre, and the Szeben-Peto Foundation, is published in Nature Communications.

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