New imaging technique detects progressive Parkinson's damage

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Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new imaging technique that allows them to detect the progressive damage inflicted on two brain structures affected by Parkinson's disease.

Helko Braak, an anatomist at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt Germany, had earlier proposed that the substantia nigra, which is associated with movement, begins to degenerate in the early stages of Parkinson's.  However, this hadn't been observed in living patients because the substantia nigra is buried so far inside the brain, which makes it difficult to image with conventional MRI. 

Through this new technique, reported online Nov. 26 in the Archives of Neurology, the MIT researchers used four different types of MRI scans, each using different settings, to come up with different images of the part of the brain containing the substantia nigra and the basal forebrain, which is involved with learning and memory. The researchers combined the images to get a clearer picture of damage done to these two brain structures. 

The researchers studied 29 early-stage Parkinson's disease patients and found a significant loss of substantial nigra volume in the beginning stages of the disease, followed by a progressive loss of basal forebrain volume. 

The technique could allow physicians to better monitor the progression of the disease in patients and evaluate the effectiveness of new treatments, Suzanne Corkin, MIT professor emerita of neuroscience and leader of the research team, said in an announcement. "With our new imaging methods, we can see these structures more clearly than anyone had seen them before."

Corkin added that the technique could allow physicians to determine what is occurring in the brain for different subgroups of Parkinson's patients showing different symptoms, which could impact the way such patients are treated. 

Lead author David Ziegler, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times that one of the "big outstanding questions" in this type of research is whether all Parkinson's patients will develop dementia.

To learn more:
- see the study in the Archives of Neurology
- see the announcement
- read the article in the New York Times

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