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Parkinson’s patients’ treatment needs identified with new brain scan

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A novel brain scan could help scientists identify which Parkinson’s patients would benefit most from a drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The scan can allow researchers to better visualise changes in the part of the brain linked to cognitive decline, a study has suggested.

While previous work has shown that atomoxetine – a drug used for people with ADHD – can be helpful to some Parkinson’s sufferers, until now there has not been an easy way to identify those it might help the most.

The study, funded by the charity Parkinson’s UK and published in the journal Brain, was hailed by one researcher as an “exciting step towards individualised therapy for cognitive decline” because it helps identify the people the treatment is most suitable for.

“Changes in cognition can interfere with a person’s wellbeing and may stop them from engaging in their regular and enjoyable activities because they feel they become too time-consuming, stressful, and challenging to complete,” explained Dr Katherine Fletcher, the charity’s research communications manager.

The charity said the use of atomoxetine improved the ability to inhibit behaviour – to let the brain “stop and think” before doing the right thing. Improvements with the drug were especially profound in people with the most damage to the locus coeruleus – the region of the brain linked to cognitive decline, the researchers said. They had lower natural levels of noradrenaline – a brain chemical affected in Parkinson’s which processes thoughts and behaviour.

The researchers added that an imbalance of noradrenaline can lead to difficulty concentrating, forgetting things and taking longer to think and process information, or can cause a change in behaviour.

Looking at noradrenaline levels and how they are affected means scientists are “taking a step closer to finding better treatments” for the disease, Fletcher explained.

“This promising research has the potential to address this unmet need and improve the quality of life for 145,000 people living in the UK,” she said. “By looking at what other chemicals are affected, such as noradrenaline, we are taking a step closer to finding better treatments for Parkinson’s.”

Claire O’Callaghan, the lead researcher from the University of Cambridge, described how the project is an “exciting step” towards individualised therapy for cognitive decline in Parkinson’s as experts can now identify who this treatment might be suitable for. “The next steps will be to carry out a clinical trial with people taking the drug for longer, and to see if it helps cognition on an everyday basis.” 

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