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New non-invasive tool can detect early stages of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's

After a year-long wait for a neurologist in Halifax, Tracy Brander’s husband was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease. Her husband, now 54, was 39 at the time.

“It wasn't bad for the first years, you know. But the past three years it has been terrible for him. He can hardly walk. He's in a lot of pain,” Brander told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday.

While the average age to develop Parkinson’s is around 60, young-onset occurs in five to 10 per cent of people diagnosed under 40, according to Parkinson Canada’s website.

Brander said she would like to know if any of her four children will get the disease, too, and with a personal family history of Alzheimer’s–another neurodegenerative disease–the Dalhousie University nursing student is looking for ways to get them diagnosed before showing any symptoms.

It's something that wouldn't have been possible decades ago, but new research means it is now an option for Brander's family.

Researchers at Carleton University's Department of Electronics in Ottawa created a ground-breaking testing device to detect early signs of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s through biomolecular activities in a person’s saliva.

The palm-sized, 3D-printed device has bio-electronic sensors helping monitor hormone concentration – such as dopamine, cortisol and a few other stress hormones – and protein aggregation for neurodegenerative diseases.

Until recently, it was believed Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s biomarkers (biological molecules) could only be found in blood or tissue, making current testing for these diseases onerous and requiring invasive measures like spinal taps.

At the same time, individuals must have significant cognitive and physical deterioration before receiving a definitive diagnosis.

Ravi Prakash, an electrical and biomedical engineering professor and lead researcher in Carleton's Organic Sensors and Devices Lab, told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday this non-invasive tool uses recent research showing the diseases’ presence is on a smaller, molecular scale.

“If we can quantify the presence of pathogenesis in saliva, it will make better diagnosis and treatment more effective and easier,” said Prakash.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information published a report in 2007 called The Burden of Neurological Diseases, Disorders and Injuries in Canada, saying the total combined cost of 11 common neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, was estimated to be $8.8 billion in 2000-01.

If these diseases can be detected early, “the amount of medication for treatment required and the care required will be much less than what it is right now,” Prakash said.

The device is currently in the prototyping stage and will be going into advanced laboratory testing with clinical trials within the year.

Brander, who reached out to Prakash about the new tool, said she is interested in the research part of it from a professional perspective, but personally, “I would like to get (my children) diagnosed and not have them get to the stage that (my husband) was at before they find out if they have it or not.”

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