Early detection of Parkinson's a step closer

Parkinson's screening tool could catch disease in early stages

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From left: Jesse Medical director Chenghong Li and chief executive Jianpeng Zhai with RMIT's Professor Dinesh Kumar.

From left: Jesse Medical director Chenghong Li and chief executive Jianpeng Zhai with RMIT's Professor Dinesh Kumar.

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Diagnosing Parkinson's disease could soon be as simple as a drawing and writing test.

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SCREENING technology to catch Parkinson's disease in its earliest stages could be available within three years.

Pioneering technology developed by Victoria's RMIT University analyses the results of specialised drawing and writing tasks to differentiate between people with and without the condition.

The new tool can spot the disease when there are no obvious symptoms and can also be used to monitor Parkinson's patients after diagnosis to better manage their condition.

A research agreement between the university and start-up company Jesse Medical gives the company exclusive rights to commercialise the technology and will enable further patient trials.

More than 80,000 people in Australia are estimated to be living with Parkinson's disease, and many treatment options are only effective when the condition is caught early.

By the time patients show any commonly recognisable symptoms, many nerve cells in the brain have already suffered irreversible damage.

Researcher Professor Dinesh Kumar said giving medical professionals the tools to screen for the disease would enable patients to receive treatment far earlier than ever before.

"Early detection is critical because we know that by the time someone starts to experience tremors or rigidity it may already be too late for medication to be effective," he said.

"It's long been known that Parkinson's disease affects muscle control and habitual activities, so it affects how patients write and draw. Our technology translates that insight into a reliable assessment tool."

Drawing a spiral by joining dots is one of seven dexterity tasks in the screening test.

Drawing a spiral by joining dots is one of seven dexterity tasks in the screening test.

The screening test involves the completion of seven dexterity tasks on a drawing tablet, including simple writing, writing with memory load and drawing a spiral by joining dots.

It creates a patient-specific baseline for the different aspects of complex Parkinson's symptoms.

The research team has refined an earlier version of the technology, which had an accuracy rate of 93 per cent, to take into account the effects of medication on the disease. This means it can also be used for monitoring the effectiveness of treatment and the severity of the condition.

"Parkinson's is a complex multi-symptom disease, with individual patients exhibiting any number of these symptoms," Professor Kumar said.

"The standard multi-modal physical tests carried out by clinicians to monitor its progress inherently carry a level of subjectivity.

"Our technology is completely objective and it's highly sensitive for both improvements and deterioration in dexterity."

The technology was developed by the RMIT biomedical engineering research team in the School of Engineering.

Further patients trials are set to start in Australia and China in mid-2020, with the technology expected to be commercially available by 2022.

Successful trials demonstrating the efficacy of the screening test have been published in the Journal of Biomedical and Health Informatics, Journal of Neurology and Frontiers in Neurology.

The facts

PARKINSON'S is the second most common neurological disease in Australia after dementia

IN AUSTRALIA, 38 people are diagnosed with the disease every day

20 per cent of sufferers are under 50 and 10 per cent are diagnosed before the age of 40.

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