A new breathalyzer test could potentially change the way Parkinson’s disease is diagnosed and may help those with the disease get treatment far earlier.

Currently, many with Parkinson’s disease don’t receive a diagnosis until the disease is in advanced stages, so early-detection tests are a top priority.

“Parkinson’s is diagnosed by the appearance of certain clinical signs, [such as] tremor at rest, stiffness in major muscle groups, slowness of movement,” said John P.M. Finberg, a researcher from the Israel Institute of Technology.

But Finberg is looking for a way to get patients diagnosed earlier. In a new study published in ACS Chemical Neuroscience, Finberg looked at the possibility that a breath test can detect the disease during early stages.

Doing so means that patients can receive neuroprotective therapy sooner.

His device had an array of 40 sensors based on gold nanoparticles or single-walled carbon nanotubes. Each sensor featured a different chemical that binds with volatile molecules in the breath, which changed the sensor’s electrical resistance.

In short, it was able to pinpoint differences in the exhaled breath of those with Parkinson’s disease when compared with the breath of those without the disease. The researchers aimed to see if the device could tell the differences in the breath of patients with the disease in early stages who had not yet received treatment.

Finberg and his team tested it on 29 newly diagnosed patients who hadn’t started taking medication for the disease. They compared the breath outcomes to 19 control subjects at a similar age. They say the device was able to detect early Parkinson’s disease with 79 percent sensitivity, 84 percent specificity, and 81 percent accuracy.

That’s better than a diagnostic smell test already developed and almost as good as a brain ultrasound.

Earlier this year, a test was able to detect Parkinson’s in cerebral spinal fluid with 93 percent accuracy. The study also featured a relatively low number of participants, with just 60 people being tested.

Results were able to be detected more quickly — in just two days — compared with other methods that could take about two weeks.

Hurdles to a definitive diagnosis

The research team says that the device still has more testing to go to see if the differences detected in breath are, in fact, able to accurately detect Parkinson’s disease specifically. If the device proves to be accurate, it could be a good screening system for at-risk individuals who haven’t seen a specialist for screening.

“Probably the major use of such an instrument would be a first step, as you say, and would indicate the importance of referring the patient to a skilled neurologist,” Finberg said.

Currently, the device tests an “altered spectrum of exhaled molecules, which we cannot say for certain are found only in Parkinson’s patients,” Finberg said. “We need further clinical studies to improve this point,” he noted. Finberg said his team has tweaked the device so it doesn’t need to absorb breathe molecules and then release them into a test chamber. Instead, the latest device can detect breath molecules directly and read them on a computer.

Dr. John Q. Trojanowski, a geriatric medicine professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine told Healthline that the study is “interesting,” but that the research would need to be replicated to confirm the findings.

David Sulzer, PhD, a neurology researcher from Columbia University in New York, said ensuring the tests accuracy for a wide range of people will be difficult.

“I think it’s going to be a real challenge for this approach to provide a very robust test and to differentiate Parkinson’s disease from other disease conditions that may change volatile compounds in the breath,” Sulzer told Healthline.