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Drawing test detects signs of Parkinson’s

A simple drawing test is being hailed by researchers as the first ever tool to diagnose Parkinson’s disease when there are no obvious physical symptoms.

A team at RMIT University has developed new diagnostic software that analyses the way people draw an Archimedean spiral and detects signs of Parkinson’s.

Chief investigator professor Dinesh Kumar said researchers have long known that Parkinson’s disease affects people’s writing and sketching abilities, but added efforts to translate that insight into a reliable assessment method have failed – until now.

Working with Dandenong Neurology, the team studied 62 people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Half of which had no visible symptoms and half ranged from mildly to severely affected.

Kumar said: “The customised software we’ve developed records how a person draws a spiral and analyses the data in real time. The only equipment you need to run the test is a pen, paper and a large drawing tablet.”

The pen used in the study senses the location of contact and pressure between the tip and the paper, and researchers developed proprietary software to record and analyse the data in real time.

Kumar said: “With this tool we can tell whether someone has Parkinson’s disease and calculate the severity of their condition, with a 93 per cent accuracy rate.

“While we still have more research to do, we’re hopeful that in future doctors or nurses could use our technology to regularly screen their patients for Parkinson’s, as well as help those living with the disease to better manage their condition.”

Parkinson’s is the second most common neurological disease in Australia after dementia and affects an estimated 80,000 people nationally and 10 million individuals worldwide.

Every day, 32 Australians are diagnosed with the disease. A fifth of these are under the age of 50 and 10 per cent are diagnosed before the age of 40.

According to Parkinson’s Australia, the four key symptoms of the disease are tremor, slowness of movement, muscle rigidity and instability.

The peak body says currently diagnostic interventions might include, among others, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to rule out other neurological conditions that may resemble Parkinson’s and computerised tomography (CT) scans, to rule out structural abnormalities that may result in Parkinson's-like symptoms.

Professor Dinesh Kumar and PhD researcher Poonam Zham. Photo: RMIT

The RMIT team hopes its technology could one day be used as a standard screening test to spot the condition in its earliest stages. Kumar said many treatment options for Parkinson’s were effective only when the disease was diagnosed early.

“Pushing back the point at which treatment can start is critical because we know that by the time someone starts to experience tremors or rigidity, it may already be too late,” he explained.

PhD researcher Poonam Zham led the study, published in journal Frontiers in Neurology, by the RMIT biomedical engineering research team, which specialises in e-health and the development of affordable diagnostic technologies.

The research compared the effectiveness of different dexterity tasks, such as writing a sentence, writing individual letters, writing a sequence of letters and sketching a guided Archimedean spiral, and determined that the spiral was the most reliable option and easiest for participants to complete.

Zham said: “Our study had some limitations so we need to do more work to validate our results, including a longitudinal study on different demographics and a trial of patients who are not taking medication, but we’re excited by the potential for this simple-to-use and cost-effective technology to transform the way we diagnose Parkinson’s, and the promise it holds for changing the lives of millions around the world.”

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