A recent study demonstrates the neural responses in the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients over time.

Researchers note that the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH’s) Parkinson’s Disease Biomarkers Program and published in Neurology, may provide a new tool for testing experimental medications aimed at alleviating symptoms and slowing the rate at which the disease damages the brain, according to a media release from NIH.

The research team was led by the study’s senior author David Vaillancourt, PhD, a professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology. Participants included healthy controls, patients with Parkinson’s disease, and patients with what is described as “atypical Parkinsonism”—multiple systems atrophy (MSA) and progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP)—that have symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease.

Among all three groups, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the activity in two specific brain regions that are critical for movement and balance. The participants underwent two scans spaced a year apart, during which they completed a test that gauged their grip strength.

The release explains that the healthy controls showed no changes in neural activity after a year, whereas the participants with Parkinson’s showed reductions in the response of two brain regions called the putamen and the primary motor cortex. Activity decreased in MSA patients in the primary motor cortex, the supplementary motor area, and the superior cerebellum, while the individuals with PSP showed a decline in the response of these three areas and the putamen.

The scientists hope that to use these two biomarkers to test whether an experimental medication known to improve Parkinson’s symptoms also slows the progression of these brain changes, per the release.

“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,” Dr. Vaillancourt explains in the release. “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.”

[Source: National Institutes of Health]