Using ultrasound to ‘see’ Parkinson’s disease in the brain

Neuroscientists are using ultrasound – a medical imaging technique usually associated with looking at babies in the womb – to ‘see’ through the skull and into the brain, with the hope of diagnosing Parkinson’s disease many years earlier than is currently possible.

Assoc Prof Kay Double from Neuroscience Research Australia says we may eventually be able to use this technique as a simple and cheap screening tool for the disease.

“Right now, there is no test for Parkinson’s. We rely on detecting subtle problems with movement that the patient themselves may not notice for some years. By the time these become obvious, an enormous amount of damage has already occurred in the brain which makes treatment difficult,” says A/Prof Double.

“Ultrasound is non-invasive and readily available in the community. If our technique works, we could use it to inexpensively screen people before the disease takes hold.”

“This new technique could be the first stage of preventing Parkinson’s disease.”

Parkinson’s disease is the second most prevalent neurological condition after dementia and is expected to increase as the baby boomers age.

The disease destroys brain cells that control the body’s movement, causing trembling, stiffness, slowness of movement and a loss of fine motor control.

The study uses ultrasound to look at the brains of healthy older adults – specifically the part that controls the body’s movements – and see how this changes in people with Parkinson’s disease.

“We want to see how the brain looks different in Parkinson’s so we can use this as a marker – or test – for the disease.”

People with Parkinson’s can go for many years without developing symptoms, despite the death of large numbers of brain cells. Up to 70% of the susceptible brain cells can die before symptoms become noticeable.

“The brain has an amazing ability to compensate for damage,” says A/Prof Double. “In addition to diagnosis, ultrasound may help us understand this process.”

“If we can mimic and prolong the brain’s own extraordinary coping mechanism, we could help people with Parkinson’s to remain symptom-free for longer, even indefinitely.”