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New Tools to Diagnose and Treat Parkinson’s

Casey Kelly-Barton
By Casey Kelly-BartonApril 17, 2018
New Tools to Diagnose and Treat Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s disease doesn’t yet have a cure, but physicians and researchers are tirelessly working on improving treatments.

Tools to Diagnose and Treat Parkinson’s

As part of Parkinson’s Awareness Month, here’s a look at some promising new developments for people living with the disease, both high tech and old-fashioned:

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1. A simple test to spot Parkinson’s early on.

Not all the progress against Parkinson’s involves advanced research or high tech tools. The New York University School of Medicine recently published a study of 402 patients with orthostatic hypotension, which makes people feel dizzy or faint when they stand up. In most people with the condition, the heart rate speeds up when blood pressure falls. Some patients, however, had “a two-fold reduction in blood pressure, but only a one-third elevation in heart rate” after a tilt-table test that changed their position from lying to standing.

The study authors said these people’s low blood pressure was likely caused by Parkinson’s or another neurodegenerative condition. They also said checking a patient’s blood pressure while standing after lying down is a simple test that doctors can do now to identify patients who need further screening for Parkinson’s.

2. Artificial intelligence to find new Parkinson’s drugs faster.

Meanwhile, researchers in the UK are harnessing the computing power of artificial intelligence to find new drug treatments for Parkinson’s more quickly than using traditional drug discovery methods.

A joint partnership between Benevolent AI of London and two UK Parkinson’s advocacy groups will use a machine-learning tool known as a neural network to evaluate drugs already on the market to find those that could also help people with Parkinson’s. That’s the first priority because such drugs could be prescribed off-label now, rather than having to go through the time-consuming new drug trial and approval process. The partnership will also look for molecules that could become part of new drugs for Parkinson’s, too, although those will take longer to develop and test.

3. More benefits from a drug for advanced Parkinson’s disease.

As Parkinson’s disease advances, patients typically need more medication to remain symptom-free during the day. Unfortunately, these medications that imitate the effects of dopamine in the brain sometimes come with troubling behavioral side effects, such as hallucinations and impulse control disorders. Some people are unable to stop acting out, eating, taking medication or taking things apart and reassembling them.

A group of researchers in Spain recently published a study on whether a current treatment for movement disorders in people with advanced Parkinson’s disease might also help with impulse control disorders (ICDs). The drug they studied is called Duopa, which is administered through a surgically installed stomach tube via a pump that patients wear in a pouch. What the researchers found over the course of the six-month study was that although Duopa didn’t have a measurable effect on compulsive shopping, gambling or sex, patients did experience less impulse-driven eating, medication consumption and taking things apart. Although the results are promising for people who have these side effects, the researchers said the next step is to compare Duopa’s impact on ICDs to other Parkinson’s drugs.

4. Research with cannabis compounds for Parkinson’s symptoms.

Medical marijuana has offered help to people living with a variety of conditions, from severe nausea caused by cancer treatment to painful migraines. A new partnership between India Globalization Capital, which develops cannabis compound-based drugs and the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center, a nonprofit research and care group, will look into whether compounds in marijuana can ease certain Parkinson’s symptoms.

Anxiety, insomnia, restless sleep and overly fast or slow movements are common problems for people living with Parkinson’s. Adding cannabis-based options to the list of available treatments might not offer a cure for the disease, but it could help patients who endure nausea as a side effect of their current Parkinson’s treatment by giving them effective alternatives.

5. Smartphone tools to treat Parkinson’s symptoms.

Parkinson’s symptoms not only vary from person to person, they also can vary over the course of a day. To help doctors and researchers keep better tabs on patients’ status, a UK math professor built smartphone apps to measure users’ balance, fine-motor movements, gait, reaction times and speech. By combining those apps with in-person doctor visits over the course of a study, researchers found that the apps are accurate for tracking Parkinson’s symptoms. They announced their findings in March in JAMA Neurology.

Don’t go looking in the App Store for these tools just yet. Researchers say they’ll first be used to help researchers monitor patients in clinical trials for Parkinson’s treatments.

Eventually, though, this new technology could help doctors and people with Parkinson’s to track and treat the disease.

Were you aware of any of these tools to treat Parkinson’s disease? What does your current Parkinson’s treatment plan look like? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Casey Kelly-Barton
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Casey Kelly-Barton

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