A new study could offer hope for the treatment of previously-untreatable symptoms in Parkinson's disease thanks to ultra-powerful brain scanners.
Both Parkinson's disease and a related disorder, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), are progressive brain diseases that not only affect movement but also the mental processes that take place in the brain, including thinking, attention, language, learning, memory and perception.
These symptoms can have a major impact on a patient's outcome, affecting survival and general wellbeing, as well as the stress and costs for families.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge used a new ultra-high strength MRI scanner at the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre.
They measured changes in the brains of people with Parkinson's disease, PSP, or who were in good health.
The results have prompted scientists to look at treatments using noradrenaline, a chemical that plays a critical role in brain functions, including attention and arousal, thinking and motivation.
Professor James Rowe from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge, who led the study, said: "Noradrenaline is very important for brain function.
"All of our brain's supply comes from a tiny region at the back of the brain. It's a bit like two short sticks of spaghetti half an inch long: it's thin, it's small, and it's tucked away at the very base of the brain in the brain stem."
Researchers wanted to know how they could examine this tiny region of the brain, as previous MRI scanners have not been powerful enough.
While most scanners can show structures at the level of detail of a grain of rice, the high power scanners, which have ultra-strong magnetic fields, can provide resolution at the size of a grain of sand.
This allowed the team to examine this small part of the brain and found 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.
Researchers suggest the findings offer the hope of new treatments for these symptoms. A number of drugs that boost noradrenaline have already been through clinical trials for other conditions and have been shown to be safe and well tolerated.
Professor Rowe and colleagues are now leading a clinical trial at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to see if these drugs alleviate symptoms.
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