New Parkinson’s Test Diagnoses Disease Before Symptoms Appear

But with a disease with no known cure, would you want to know?

Researchers in the U.K. have developed a simple blood test to look for the presence of phosphorylated alpha-synuclein, a substance that appears in greater quantities in Parkinson’s patients than those without the disease. The blood test would allow for earlier diagnosis, before outward symptoms appear and while brain damage associated with the disease is likely to still be minimal.

The researchers who developed the test are touting it as a useful step forward because it might “help the development of medicines that could protect the brain, which would be better for the quality of life and future health of older people.” Yes, I guess that’s true, and it’s nice to be able to contribute to the greater good of Science. But if you found out you were in the earliest stages of an incurable disease that could eventually leave you with crippling symptoms like tremors, impaired mobility and slowed speech—would you want to know?

Truth be told, my grandfather had Parkinson’s, and while it was manageable—almost undetectable—for several years, the last few years of his life were really difficult to watch. Near the end, his legs and hands were all but frozen in this gnarled position, bent at angles you wouldn’t think possible. Thing is, through it all, his brain, his memory, his hilarious sense of humor were all but untouched. So while his body was failing in a way that neither he nor his doctors could control, he was more than aware of what was happening, and what his limitations were. Could you imagine how frustrating that would be? You want to straighten your leg but you just … can’t.

So considering my family history, would I actually want to know that I had Parkinson’s before symptoms set in? At this point, Parkinson’s medications only control the outward symptoms, so there’s really not much to be done for people with the disease who don’t have symptoms—you just sort of, you know, sit there and wait for the shakes to start.

Let’s say for the sake of this conversation that, unbeknownst to me, right now I have higher-than-normal levels of phosphorylated alpha-synuclein coursing through my blood. If presented with the opportunity to have the blood test, would I want to? Because if I found out that the test came back positive, I’d have to be willing to live with the knowledge of what’s in store for me years, even decades, down the line—without being able to do a single thing about it. Is it worth it?

Maybe ignorance really is bliss.