Swallow’s tail test for Parkinson’s

August 18th, 2014

An image similar in shape to a swallow’s tail has been identified as a new and accurate test for Parkinson’s disease. The image, which depicts the healthy state of a group of cells in the sub-region of the human brain, was singled out using 3T MRI scanning technology — standard equipment in clinical settings today.

The research was led by Dr Stefan Schwarz and Professor Dorothee Auer, experts in neuroradiology in the School of Medicine at Nottingham and was carried out at the Queen’s Medical Centre in collaboration with Dr Nin Bajaj, an expert in Movement Disorder Diseases at the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust.

The findings, which have been published in the open access academic journal PLOS one, build on a successful collaboration with Professor Penny Gowland at the Sir Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Centre at the University.

The ‘Swallow Tail’ Appearance of the Healthy Nigrosome — A New Accurate Test of Parkinson’s Disease: A Case-Control and Retrospective Cross-Sectional MRI Study at 3T — describes how the absence of this imaging sign can help to diagnose  Parkinson’s disease using standard clinical Magnetic Resonance Scanners.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder which destroys brain cells that control movement. Around 127,000 people in the UK have the disease. Currently there is no cure but drugs and treatments can manage the symptoms.

Until now diagnosing Parkinson’s in clinically uncertain cases has been limited to expensive nuclear medical techniques or non-licensed diagnostic techniques, which offer varying reliability. None have the required accuracy and ease of use to allow translation into standard clinical practice.

Using high resolution 7T magnetic resonance imaging the Nottingham research team has pinpointed the characteristic pathology of Parkinson’s with structural change in a small area of the mid brain known as the substantia nigra. The latest study has shown that these changes can also be detected using 3T MRI technology used in hospitals across the country. They subsequently coined the phrase the ‘swallow tail appearance’ as a sign of the healthy appearing substantia nigra which is lost in Parkinson’s disease. Of the 14 high-resolution scans reviewed, in 94% of cases the diagnosis was accurately made using this technique.

Dr Schwarz said: “This is a breakthrough finding as currently Parkinson’s disease is mostly diagnosed by identifying symptoms like stiffness and tremor. Imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis are limited to expensive nuclear medical techniques which are not widely available and associated with potentially harmful ionizing radiation.

“Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging — no ionizing radiation involved and much cheaper than nuclear medical techniques — we identified a specific imaging feature which has great similarity to a tail of a swallow and therefore decided to call it the ‘swallow tail sign’. This sign is absent in Parkinson’s disease.”

The research was funded by The University of Nottingham, the Sarah Matheson Trust, and the Medical Research Council. Dr Schwarz’s Academic Clinical Lectureship is funded by the National Institute for Health Research UK.

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