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Health Information Under the Microscope: More Than a Gut Feeling About Parkinson Disease

Standard colon exams show potential for identifying Parkinson disease.

Physicians may soon be trusting your gut when it comes to diagnosing Parkinson disease.

Samples collected from a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy, two routine colon examinations, may potentially allow physicians to predict who will develop Parkinson disease, according to studies led by researchers at Rush University Medical Center.

The studies, published in the journal Movement Disorders, provide hope for a more accurate diagnosis of Parkinson disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that mainly affects the elderly. Current diagnostic criteria are based on physical symptoms such as tremor, slow movement and other gait problems that aren't always apparent until the disease has progressed.

Researchers at Rush focused on Lewy bodies, microscopic structures in the brains of patients with Parkinson disease that are only detectable through an autopsy. They found that the protein alpha-synuclein, part of what composes Lewy bodies, could be seen in the intestinal cells of research subjects with early Parkinson disease, but not in healthy subjects. A sample was taken from each of the study participants via a flexible sigmoidoscopy, a minimally invasive scope of the large intestines that takes just five to 10 minutes.

"Tissue could be obtained during a colonoscopy, a procedure routinely applied for colon cancer surveillance beginning at age 50, and repeated every three to 10 years in adults of middle age," says Kathleen Shannon, MD, a neurologist in the Parkinson Disease and Movement Disorders Center at Rush, who was part of the multidisciplinary team of scientists at the Medical Center who led the studies.

Early Work on Early Detection Technique

If the work of Shannon and her team leads to a way to detect Parkinson disease early, it can have a positive effect on treatment. Though there is no cure for the disease, it is hoped that current research studies may identify one or more agents that might slow disease progression. Once physical symptoms are apparent, many patients have already lost 60 to 80 percent of the cells in the brain that produce dopamine, which promotes healthy body movement.

"The need for an accurate and timely diagnostic test, including the potential for diagnosis prior to physical symptoms, is particularly urgent," Shannon says. "We believe that studying samples from the intestinal wall has the potential to give us a way to accurately diagnose Parkinson disease and begin treatment quicker."

But she stresses the need for additional research before the analysis of colon samples becomes an accepted method for diagnosing the disease. Only time — and further studies — will tell.

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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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