Researchers find brain scans linked to the severity of Parkinson’s symptoms

Research led by Cambridge University and part funded by Parkinson’s UK shows that a form of brain scan could help identify those at risk of specific Parkinson’s symptoms. The results could pave the way to better treatment of Parkinson’s.

Results published in the journal Movement Disorders build on our understanding that Parkinson’s impacts more than just dopamine producing brain cells that are largely found in the middle of the brain. 

The study shows that changes in an area of the brain called the locus coeruleus are linked to the severity of 2 major non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s

The research team used brain scans to identify changes in the area where the brain meets the spinal cord. They discovered that damage here was linked to cognitive changes and apathy in individuals with Parkinson's and progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). 

Why is the locus coeruleus important? 

The locus coeruleus plays a vital role in controlling the levels of a brain chemical called noradrenaline. This is a chemical messenger that is involved in how we process thoughts, memories and behaviours. Previous research has shown that levels of noradrenaline can be altered in Parkinson’s. 

What did the researchers do? 

A powerful form of MRI scan was used to visualise the locus coeruleus in 25 people with Parkinson’s, 14 people with PSP and 24 people who didn’t have either condition. In both Parkinson’s and PSP there was evidence of damage in this region of the brain. And in those that had the most damage, this was linked to worse scores when measuring apathy and cognition. 

Dr Katherine Fletcher, Research Communications Manager at Parkinson’s UK, said: 

"Brain imaging has come a long way. This research shows the vital role it plays in better understanding what’s happening within the brain in Parkinson's and other neurological conditions. 

"Looking beyond dopamine to other brain chemicals altered in Parkinson’s will allow researchers to potentially unlock other treatments to manage or treat non-motor symptoms of the condition, such as memory. People with Parkinson’s have identified this area as being a top priority for research. 

"This work could offer a future tool to help find better and personalised treatments for cognitive changes and apathy in Parkinson's."