Scientists Develop Quick “Game‑Changing” Test to Diagnose Parkinson’s Disease


Mar 12, 2021


A simple, painless skin swab test may be the near-future way to diagnose Parkinson’s disease, according to a new development made by scientists. The test, which is still in development, allows scientists to diagnose Parkinson’s disease with 85% accuracy, offering hope of a quick, easy and early diagnosis. Currently, there is no conclusive diagnostic test for the disease, and nearly one-quarter of people with Parkinson’s are initially misdiagnosed.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder, that is, a chronic and gradual loss of neurons, which leads to debilitating conditions and problems with movement and/or mental functioning. It is one of the more common neurodegenerative disorders, second only to Alzheimer’s disease and affecting more than 6 million globally

Parkinson’s tends to develop gradually and it may be many months, even years before the symptoms become obvious enough for an individual to visit a doctor. Research suggests a lack of dopamine leads to PD, but a formal diagnosis of the disorder usually only occurs after the depletion of 60-80% of the brain’s dopaminergic neurons.

A Parkinson’s diagnosis is reached primarily through observations by a physician, who notes the decline in a person’s motor functions: slowed movement (bradykinesia), resting tremors, rigidity, and postural instability. However, many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s can overlap with other conditions, especially in the early stages when progression is gradual and symptoms are more subtle. In fact, in a recent survey of more than 2,000 people with Parkinson’s in the U.K., 26% reported they were misdiagnosed with a different condition before receiving the correct diagnosis. 

There is no cure for this disorder currently. But diagnosing it early is important, as pharmacological treatments that slow the disease’s progression are more effective when administered early in the disease. In addition, because most severe symptoms occur in advanced stages, early detection and treatment have the potential to improve the experience of those living with Parkinson’s. 

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Non-motor symptoms of the disorder are thought to precede motor symptoms by up to 20 years, some of which could be: mood disorders, sleep disorders, and olfactory deficits. But again, such symptoms are easily mistaken for other ailments. 

The new technique developed by scientists at the University of Manchester works by analysing sebum. Sebum is a complex lipid-rich substance that serves as a protective agent on the skin. People with Parkinson’s seem to produce excess sebum. And so, the researchers of the study have developed a swab test of sebum secretion as a diagnostic tool for PD. 

This makes for a non-invasive and inexpensive test that can be used to detect the early onset of the disease. These promising results could lead to a definitive test to diagnose Parkinson’s accurately, speedily, and cost-effectively. “Not only is the test quick, simple, and painless but it should also be extremely cost-effective because it uses existing technology that is already widely available,” Professor Perdita Barran, a professor of mass spectrometry at The University of Manchester who helped develop the test, said in a press release. “We are now looking to take our findings forwards to refine the test to improve accuracy even further and to take steps towards making this a test that can be used in the NHS and to develop more precise diagnostics and better treatment for this debilitating condition.”

The scientists took samples of sebum from the upper backs of 500 people with and without Parkinson’s. After using different mass spectrometry methods, they identified 10 chemical compounds in sebum that were elevated or reduced in people with Parkinson’s. The complex chemical signature of sebum in people with Parkinson’s showed subtle but fundamental changes as the condition progressed. 

According to the researchers, this testing strategy will not only be useful in diagnosing Parkinson’s but also in monitoring the development of the condition. The skin swab could be used in clinical trials to help measure whether new, experimental treatments are slowing, stopping, or even reversing the progression of Parkinson’s.

The team is now seeking funding to further develop the test and explore the potential of sebum testing.


Written By Satviki Sanjay

Satviki Sanjay is an editorial intern at The Swaddle. She’s currently studying philosophy at Miranda House. When not studying, she can be found writing about gender, internet culture, sexuality, technology, and mental health. She loves talking to people, and you can always find her on Instagram @satvikii.


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