My sharp-eyed brother sent me this link, asking “If they can do this, then perhaps a test for Parkinsons?” The link described results of early research on a potential biomarker for autism. I was surprised at the parallels between Parkinson’s and autism. Like Parkinson’s, autism can be difficult to diagnose since it presents in many different ways. Like Parkinson’s, autism is no longer thought of as a single disease but a spectrum, and autism is more accurately called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Like Parkinson’s, the cause(s) of autism is not clearly understood, but is not strictly genetic or environmental. Like Parkinson’s, a damaged protein is suspected. And like Parkinson’s, there is no biomarker for autism, that is, an objective measure like (say) blood sugar for diabetes.
A consortium of European universities, led by the University of Warwick (GB) Medical School, used a combination of blood testing, urine testing, and artificial intelligence techniques to improve accuracy of autism diagnosis. The researchers analyzed the blood and urine of 69 children—38 with ASD and 31 without—and found chemical differences between the two groups. They linked ASD with blood plasma protein damage, in which reactive oxygen species and sugar molecules spontaneously modify certain proteins.
The team used artificial intelligence techniques to develop predictive algorithms based on these results. One algorithm correctly predicted ASD cases with 90 percent accuracy. It also predicted when children did not have ASD with 87 percent accuracy.
“Our test is expected to improve the accuracy of ASD diagnosis from 60–70 percent currently achieved by experts in neurological disorders to approximately 90 percent accuracy,” Naila Rabbani, lead study author and a biologist at the University of Warwick in the U.K., said in a statement.
Blood and urine tests may also help shed light on the causes of ASD. “With further testing we may reveal specific plasma and urinary profiles or “fingerprints” of compounds with damaging modifications. This may help us improve the diagnosis of ASD and point the way to new causes of ASD,” Rabbani said.
The next steps will be to validate the test in further studies, and to see if it can identify ASD at very early stages. The children in this study were aged between five and 12 years old. Encouraging news for those who live with autism. How relevant is this study to a Parkinson’s biomarker? Here’s a significant difference: The malformed protein (alpha- synuclein) that is suspected of causing Parkinson’s does not travel across the blood-brain barrier into the blood plasma – so no blood sample as a biomarker. But let’s be hopeful – progress in one neurological disease may turn the key in another neurological disease.