Doctors usually diagnose Parkinson’s disease after patients complain of the telltale symptoms—tremors, rigidity, slowed movements, impaired balance. These signs typically don’t appear until this degenerative neurological disease is at a relatively late stage. In its early stages, however, Parkinson’s often goes unnoticed…which is a problem, because early diagnosis maximizes the treatment options.
Breakthrough: There’s a simple clue that can help detect Parkinson’s in the early stages, long before obvious symptoms appear, a new study reveals. All that’s required is putting pen to paper…
SMALL WRITING, BIG CLUES
The study included 20 patients who had been diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s disease and did not yet have obvious signs of motor impairment…plus 20 healthy people (the control group) who were matched for age, gender, education level and hand dominance. All of the participants were asked to write their names and copy an address. You may think that this is a very simple task, but actually it’s quite complex—because it involves manual dexterity as well as cognitive, sensory and perceptual-motor abilities.
For this study, the participants wrote on regular lined paper attached to an electronic tablet that could measure the amount of pressure applied. The writing utensil was a wireless, electronic pen with a pressure-sensitive tip. A computer assessed the pressure applied by the pen, the placement and angle of the pen’s tip, and the length of time it took to prepare and place the strokes of the pen. The length, height and width of the letters each person wrote also were measured.
Findings: Compared to the healthy control group, the patients with early-stage Parkinson’s…
- Spent more time with their pens in the air between strokes (as if strategically planning their next move, the researchers said).
- Applied less pressure when writing.
- Required more time to complete the handwriting task.
- Wrote smaller letters.
Simplest clue revealed: Next, the researchers determined that it was possible to identify, with 97.5% accuracy, which writing samples were produced by people with early-stage Parkinson’s based solely on the size of the letters! Researchers who were unaware of which writing samples came from which participant correctly identified 19 out of the 20 Parkinson’s patients as having the disease…and correctly identified all 20 of the healthy controls as not having the disease.
People with Parkinson’s frequently notice changes in their thinking ability before they notice any loss of motor skills. That’s why a handwriting test that also engages cognitive skills—as opposed to one that focuses strictly on motor skills, such as drawing spirals (an assessment test doctors often use)—could well help doctors diagnose the disease in its early stages.
This was a fairly small study, so the results will need to be replicated in larger studies before the handwriting test could become a standard diagnostic tool. But in the meantime, why not test yourself? Write your name and copy several addresses, then compare what you’ve written to a sample of your handwriting from years ago. If your letters have become noticeably smaller, bring this fact to your doctor’s attention, show him/her this article and ask whether you might benefit from being evaluated for Parkinson’s.