The Nottingham University Hospital researchers, funded by Parkinson's UK, used an MRI brain scan to study changes in a pigment in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's.
In 69 participants, they found that the brain scan was highly accurate at identifying those with mild or moderate Parkinson's – highlighting the potential of this technique as a diagnostic test.
Dark pigment in brain cells
The brain cells affected by Parkinson's contain a pigment called neuromelanin. This pigment gives the cells a characteristic dark colouring.
The technique may be sensitive enough to monitor the progression of Parkinson's.
As these cells are lost in Parkinson's, this pigmentation is reduced. Recent research has suggested MRI may be sensitive enough to detect this change.
However, there are many different machines and methods for taking MRI brain scans, which could affect how accurate the technique is at detecting Parkinson's.
The team developed ways to standardise results from different types of machine to increase the accuracy of the technique as a diagnostic tool.
They also discovered that the technique may be sensitive enough to monitor the progression of Parkinson's.
Better, faster diagnosis
Dr Beckie Port, Senior Research Communications Officer at Parkinson's UK, comments:
"There is no definitive diagnostic tool for Parkinson's available at the moment. Instead, the condition is diagnosed by specialists after examining the symptoms. Some research suggests that 1 in 10 people are misdiagnosed.
This research is hugely promising
"Brain scans, such as a DatSCAN or MRI, can be helpful in some cases but are currently not sensitive enough to make a definite diagnosis of Parkinson's so are not commonly used.
"This research is hugely promising as it could reduce the delays and distress that many people experience in getting a definitive diagnosis of Parkinson's. However, it is early days and a large study of the brain scan technique is needed before we can be sure how accurate it would be."