Diffusion Tensor Imaging to Diagnose Movement Disorders

A team of researchers at the University of Florida used a special imaging technique to identify markers in brain regions to help identify specific movement disorders whose clinical symptoms often appear similar but have different origins in the brain.  Parkinson’s disease, multiple system atrophy, essential tremor or supranuclear palsy have symptoms that are very similar in the early stages of the disease which makes a definite diagnosis very difficult.

David Vaillancourt is the team’s principal investigator.  He is an associate professor in the department of applied physiology and kinesiology.  Over a three year period, he and his team have examined 72 patients with movement disorders using the imaging technique Diffusion Tensor Imaging.  They also anticipate testing between 150 and 180 new subjects in the next few years.

DTI, as it is called, is a non-invasive imaging process that together with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is able to examine structures deep within the brain and characterize the properties of those structures on a microscopic scale much more detailed than imagery alone can provide.  By sensitizing the MRI signal, it can analyze the random molecular motion of water molecules which provides insights ot the organization of the micro structures.

Dr. Vaillancourt stated that the primary goal of this study was to be able to use DTI to accurately predict the correct disease.  When a new patient presents with symptoms, this technique will make diagnosing the symptoms possible early in the disease progression.  Diagnosis and treatment can be tailored from the beginning, eliminating possible changes to diagnosis as various symptoms progress or response to medication is inadequate.

Of the 72 subjects they have so far examined, they have been able to diagnose and separate the patients into specific movement disorder groups very accurately.  The results of this study will be published in the journal Movement Disorders.


Prodoehl, J., Li, H., Planetta, P. J., Goetz, C. G., Shannon, K. M., Tangonan, R., Comella, C. L., Simuni, T., Zhou, X. J., Leurgans, S., Corcos, D. M. and Vaillancourt, D. E. (2013), Diffusion tensor imaging of Parkinson’s disease, atypical parkinsonism, and essential tremor. Mov. Disord.. doi: 10.1002/mds.25491


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