Study pinpoints region of the brain heavily affected by Parkinson's

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Researchers have pinpointed regions in the brain that are affected by Parkinson’s disease, opening the door to a potential treatment.

Researchers from the University of Florida selected areas of the brain that influence movement and balance, based on the results of past studies under similar conditions. Researchers scanned participants’ brains using functional MRI, with a yearlong gap between scans. Subjects also completed a test that gauged their grip strength.

"For decades, the field has been searching for an effective biomarker for Parkinson's disease," said Debra Babcock, MD, PhD, program director at the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). "This study is an example of how brain imaging biomarkers can be used to monitor the progression of Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders."

More than 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s disease, with another 60,000 Americans diagnosed every year. While medication can help treat symptoms, there currently isn’t a way to stop the destruction of neurons that causes the disease. Instead, most efforts are concentrated on catching it early and alleviating the symptoms.

The healthy controls showed little change in brain activity after a year, while the subjects with Parkinson’s showed decreasing function in the putamen and primary motor cortex. These neural structures are responsible for coordination of motor skills, which deteriorate as the disease progresses. The team hopes to use the new biomarkers to test the effectiveness of a new medication that slows the progression of brain changes.

“These markers allow us to evaluate disease-modifying therapeutics because we know that the control group doesn't change over a year but patient groups do," said David Vaillancourt, PhD, and colleagues. "We can see whether a therapeutic prevents that change from occurring, and if it does, then that suggests it might have a disease-modifying effect."

The study was published in the journal Neurology.