Part 2: Journey to Parkinson’s and Magnetic Resonance Imaging

“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” Abraham Lincoln

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Introduction: Along the way to the diagnosis of Parkinson’s, you may have to undergo several different kinds of tests to help your physician(s) learn what actually is going on with your physiology and neurological network.  Remember there is neither a reliable blood test nor a comprehensive genetic marker evaluation to provide a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Therefore, the exams I’m getting ready to describe are sometimes done to exclude other disorders and to further implicate Parkinson’s.  My Neurologist says the most helpful thing is the actual patient interview (History and Physical) since most people with Parkinson’s have a characteristic set of signs and symptoms.

These posts (a series of 5 procedures) are purely descriptive/informational but they are important to describe because they can be kind of intimidating and nerve-racking to undergo (just in case any of these tests are suggested by your physician team).  Let me be clear, I am not recommending any of these procedures for you (I’m a basic scientist not a physician). Interestingly, my Neurologist was involved only in the MRI and sleep study, which were done after my diagnosis of Parkinson’s. The other procedures were done before my diagnosis as we (another group of very talented physicians) were trying to sort out what was wrong. These are the procedures:

Part 1 described the Barium Swallow test (click here to read this post);
Part 2 gives an overview of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) [Current post];
Part 3 highlights Polysomnography, which is a sleep study;
Part 4 presents Electromyography (EMG), which measures nerve/muscle interactions;
Part 5 characterizes Transradial Cardiac Catheterization and Angiography.

“Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it… it’s just easier if you do.” Byron Katie

ABC’s of MRI:  Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses powerful magnetic fields and radio waves to produce images of organs and structures inside your body. MRI scans are useful to help physicians diagnose a variety of disease processes, from torn ligaments to visualizing tumors. In Parkinson’s and related disorders, MRI scans are valuable for examining the brain and spinal cord.  During the scan, you lie on a table that slides inside a tunnel-shaped machine (pictured below). Good news is the scan is painless; bad news is the MRI machine is very loud. They will likely offer you earplugs.  Use the earplugs because it is that loud (magnets are being re-positioned).  If you are claustrophobic, request a damp wash cloth to place over your eyes.   They may offer you pillows for support, and they will instruct you and make sure you understand you need to be still.  There will be an emergency call button, laid close to your hand; just in case for whatever reason you need to terminate the scan.  Finally, the average duration of the scan is ~45 minutes; you need to come prepared for this time to be as relaxed and still as possible. The staff helping me get ready for my MRI were very kind, patient and friendly; they were also very knowledgeable.

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but an experience to be had.” Alan Watts

Are there any special precautions beforehand? No, there is little to no preparation required before getting an MRI scan. You will be asked to change into a gown; your clothes are stored in a locked closet. The only unusual preparation is that all removable metallic objects must be left outside the shielded MRI room itself, including removable hearing aids, dentures and other prosthetic devices.  Furthermore, magnetic strips on credit cards can be damaged by the MRI magnet.

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Confucius

How MRI works ? (Taken from “The human body is mostly water. Water molecules (H20) contain hydrogen nuclei (protons), which become aligned in a magnetic field. An MRI scanner applies a very strong magnetic field (about 0.2 to 3 teslas, or roughly a thousand times the strength of a typical fridge magnet), which aligns the proton ‘spins’.

The scanner also produces a radio frequency current that creates a varying magnetic field. The protons absorb the energy from the variable field and flip their spins. When the field is turned off, the protons gradually return to their normal spin, a process called precession. The return process produces a radio signal that can be measured by receivers in the scanner and made into an image.

Protons in different body tissues return to their normal spins at different rates, so the scanner can distinguish among tissues. The scanner settings can be adjusted to produce contrasts between different body tissues. Additional magnetic fields are used to localize body structures in 3D.”

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill

Why did your neurologist order the MRI? Mostly to eliminate other reasons for our symptoms of Parkinson’s; such as a stroke (ischemic or hemorrhagic), trauma resulting in bleeding (hemorrhage), or brain tumor. If there are no signs of a stroke, other forms of bleeding,  or brain tumor, most MRI brain scans of people with Parkinson’s will appear normal.

Example of what the mid-brain looks like from the MRI scan (*SN = Substantia nigra, the dopamine-producing region).

Good news/Bad news: The difficult issue is that you’ve just been told that you have Parkinson’s; however, let’s do the MRI scan to rule out stroke, bleeding/trauma, tumor just in case.  I understand what you are feeling, I do.  Knowing you have Parkinson’s takes your breath away; verifying it by eliminating these other processes mentioned above, still sucks.  My Neurologist told me that my brain was ‘unremarkable’; in other words, you’ve got Parkinson’s.  Stay focused, keep an even keel, your life has changed; however, your life is still relevant, keep going forward.

“Never let your head hang down. Never give up and sit down and grieve. Find another way.” Satchel Paige

“Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” Harriet Beecher Stowe

References about MRI:

Cover photo credit:


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