Predicting dementia with a new Parkinson's test

July 6, 2011 3:06:47 PM PDT
Parkinson's disease affects one in every one-hundred Americans over the age of 60. Along with its debilitating physical effects, many patients will develop mental decay.

A protein in the blood may be key in discovering which patients have the highest risk for developing dementia.

Michael Young, 54, had never ridden a motorcycle before, but he got a brand new cruiser last year. An impulse buy -- but for Young, it was now or never.

"I knew if I had Parkinson's disease, I was going to have a limited amount of time to do the things I wanted to do in life," he said.

Young was diagnosed in 2008. He had been having tremors and a difficult time moving -- hallmark symptoms of the disease.

"I have good days and bad. Good hours and bad," he said.

Parkinson's disease expert Dr. Alice Chen-Plotkin says 80-percent of Parkinson's patients who've had the disease for 20 years or more develop dementia. She adds there's been no way to tell how at risk any given patient might be. In the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers examined 150 different proteins in the blood. They found one called epidermal growth factor -- or E-G-F --that may predict a patient's cognitive function.

"What we found was that people who had low EGF levels were much more likely to develop dementia over the next two years -- eight-times more likely than people in other groups," Chen-Plotkin said.

Chen-Plotkin says if doctors can determine a patient's dementia risk, it could speed up clinical trials of new therapies. It can also help patients prepare for what may lie ahead.

"One quote that I'm fond of repeating, and it's something Muhammad Ali said, 'Don't count the days. Make the days count,'" Young said.

The E-G-F blood test is not currently available, except to patients involved in research studies. Dr. Chen-Plotkin says follow-up studies on the E-G-F blood test will conclude next year. ---