“We believe that loss of smell presents a new way forward in detecting someone’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease early. Armed with the knowledge that loss of smell presents in around 90% of people in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and a decade ahead of motor symptoms, we feel we are on the right track,” added Ms Beauchamp.
Clinical diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease currently relies on presentation of motor dysfunction, but research shows that by this time 50-70% of dopamine cell loss in the brain has already occurred.
“By waiting until this stage of Parkinson’s disease to diagnose and treat, you’ve already missed the window for neuroprotective therapies to have their intended effect. We are talking about an insidious disease affecting 80,000 people in Australia, which is set to double by 2040 before even considering the potential consequences of COVID, and we currently have no available disease-modifying therapies,” said Professor Barnham.
The researchers hope to establish a simple, cost-effective screening protocol aiming to identify people in the community at risk of developing Parkinson’s, or who are in early stages of the disease, at a time when therapies have the greatest potential to prevent onset of motor dysfunction. They plan to put the proposal forward for funding from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Funding scheme.
Additionally, the team have developed two neuroprotective therapies currently under investigation and have identified a cohort of subjects who are ideally suited to study the treatments. Through their research they gained new evidence that people with REM sleep behaviour disorder have a higher predisposition to go on to develop Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a significant economic burden costing the Australian economy in excess of $10 billion a year.
“We have to shift community thinking that Parkinson’s not a disease of old age. As we’ve been hearing time and time again, the coronavirus does not discriminate – and neither does Parkinson’s,” said Professor Barnham.
“We can take insight from the neurological consequences that followed the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 where the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease increased two to three-fold. Given that the world’s population has been hit again by a viral pandemic, it is very worrying indeed to consider the potential global increase of neurological diseases that could unfold down track.”
He added, “The world was caught off guard the first-time, but it doesn’t need to be again. We now know what needs to be done. Alongside a strategized public health approach, tools for early diagnosis and better treatments are going to be key.”
The study has been published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease [DOI:10.3233/JPD-202211]