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University of Cambridge

Speed of finger tapping and eye movements to visual targets are providing scientists and doctors with a simple tool to predict when an individual with Huntington’s disease may be about to develop the disease.

‘Huntington’s is an inherited genetic condition that eventually leads to death,’ explains Chrystalina Antoniades of the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair. ‘What is distressing for the patient is knowing that they have the gene for the disease but not knowing how long they will remain symptom free. What our tests have shown is that as the patient approaches the symptomatic stage pathways in the brain change.’

Tests of reaction time may be able to predict the onset of the Huntington’s disease by about five to ten years, which enables the patient to make plans for their future. Identifying this pre-symptomatic period also opens up the possibility of developing treatments that could slow progression towards, or even prevent, symptomatic disease.

Tapping and visual tests have also extended the evidence that Parkinson’s disease is not just one disorder but a range of diseases. ‘We are currently trialling the tests as an unbiased measure to see whether we can detect subtypes of Parkinson’s disease as well as the effects of different treatments for Parkinson’s,’ says Chrystalina.