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A team at Carolinas HealthCare System is investigating how saliva could be used to diagnose people at risk for developing Parkinson’s disease years before symptoms begin. Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the second most common degenerative brain disease in the world and is becoming more frequent in the US. Patients are often diagnosed years after the symptoms begin (difficulty walking, shaking, slow movement, falls), in which case the disease has already reached an advanced stage.
A New Discovery
An ongoing CHS research project involving the Oral Medicine laboratory team, led by (from left to right) Craig B. Stevens; Farah Mougeot, PhD; Jean-Luc Mougeot, PhD; and Mark A. Hirsch, PhD, director, Carolinas Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Research Core Laboratory, investigates what saliva tells us about brain health in Parkinson’s disease.
The team discovered that during exercise patients’ brains produce proteins that show doctors whether the disease is getting worse. These proteins show up in the saliva of Parkinson’s patients. The discovery was published in the Oral Disease journal.
A Brief Q&A with Dr. Mark A. Hirsch shedding light on what this discovery means for patients living with Parkinson’s disease:
Q: What exactly does the saliva show?
A: The proteins, referred to as “markers” or “biomarkers,” are found in the patients’ saliva during exercise. The markers give first clues about whether exercise slows, stops or reverses the progression of the disease in the brain.
Q: What does this discovery really mean for a PD patient?
A: Knowing whether exercise affects disease progression gives patients a greater sense of control over the disease—such as choosing to exercise, which could potentially slow, stop or reverse the progression of the disease in the brain. This knowledge reduces anxiety and depression that many patients with Parkinson’s disease experience after diagnosis.
Q: How this different than DNA testing to see if someone is genetically disposed to something?
A: Although only a few of the biomarkers are currently used in clinical practice, all that is needed is a swab of the saliva in the patients’ mouth. Genetic testing for Parkinson’s disease can be expensive or take a long time before results are known. What we’re saying is we could swab, which is quick and inexpensive.