An early warning sign of Parkinson’s disease may not be muscle stiffness, tremors and balance problems, experts say.
Instead, impaired speech may strike before these other hallmark symptoms, according to Lithuanian researchers.
More than ten million people worldwide are thought to have the disease, including Michael J. Fox, Billy Connolly and Jeremy Paxman.
Parkinson’s disease is caused by a loss of nerve cells in an area of the brain responsible for producing dopamine, which helps coordinate body movements.
Experts say the first warning sign of the disease, which causes muscle stiffness, tremors and balance problems, could actually be impaired speech
It gets worse over time as more and more cells die, with sufferers eventually having trouble performing daily tasks.
But as motor activity decreases, the function of the vocal cords, diaphragm and lungs also decreases, experts say.
Rytis Maskeliūnas, data scientist at Kaunas University of Technology, said: “Language changes often occur even earlier than motor function disorders.”
He added that this is “the reason why impaired speech could be the first sign of the disease”.
Professor Virgilijus Ulozas, involved in the same study, said patients with early-stage Parkinson’s disease might speak in a calmer manner.
He said it can also be monotonous, less expressive, slower and more fragmented, and can be very difficult to notice by ear.
Charities estimate that around 145,000 people in the UK and 500,000 in the US have Parkinson’s disease.
Symptoms, such as muscle stiffness, often don’t appear until around 80% of the nerve cells have been lost.
However, no test can conclusively show that a person has Parkinson’s disease.
But catching it early can bring the disease under control more quickly, leading neurologists say.
The Lithuanian team is currently working on finding a way to detect Parkinson’s disease earlier, possibly via a mobile app.
Professor Maskeliūnas said the link between Parkinson’s disease and speech abnormalities has been clear since the 1960s, but advances in technology have made it easier to analyze.
The researchers used AI to study speech samples from 61 patients with Parkinson’s disease and 43 healthy volunteers.
In a soundproof booth, a microphone was used to record the speech of the two groups.
An AI algorithm was used to process the records and analyze any differences.
“We are not creating a substitute for routine patient examination – our method is designed to aid in the early diagnosis of disease and to monitor the effectiveness of treatment,” the professor said.
They plan to expand the study to find out if this might be the best way to diagnose Parkinson’s disease at an early stage.
Prof Maskeliūnas (pictured) said the link between Parkinson’s disease and speech disorders has been clear since the 1960s, but advances in technology have made analysis easier
But Naveena Kapur, from the charity Parkinson’s UK, said impaired speech is a symptom for many people with the disease, but not all.
She also said longer-term research would be needed to determine if AI could catch the disease early.
Ms Kapur added: ‘There is currently no definitive test to detect Parkinson’s disease. This research focuses on detecting speech impairment as an early symptom.
“The results are drawn from people who have already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease to confirm that the AI technology is able to detect speech impairment as an early sign of Parkinson’s disease.
“Participants who do not have the condition will need to be studied for a long time to see if they end up developing the condition in future years.
“It’s great to see more research into early detection of Parkinson’s disease so that we have new ways to diagnose and monitor the disease, because early intervention and treatment can really help people live well with it. disease.”
WHAT IS PARKINSON?
Parkinson’s disease affects one in 500 people, including about one million Americans.
It causes muscle stiffness, slowness of movement, tremors, sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue, impaired quality of life and can lead to serious disabilities.
It is a progressive neurological disease that destroys cells in the part of the brain that controls movement.
Sufferers are known to have reduced stores of dopamine because the nerve cells that make it have died.
There is currently no cure or way to stop the progression of the disease, but hundreds of scientific trials are underway to try to change that.
The disease claimed the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali in 2016.
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