04:57am Sunday 23 February 2020

Pain-free diagnosis for Motor Neurone Disease?

SCIENTISTS are investigating a new pain-free way of diagnosing and monitoring the debilitative condition of Motor Neurone Disease.

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) are exploring ways to detect if someone has MND using ultrasound scans rather than the current technique, which involves the use of needles.

The aim is to develop a pain-free procedure for early screening to produce a host of benefits for people with MND.

Such a system would mean more detailed monitoring while providing a tool to help improve understanding of the disease’s progression, as well as assessing any new therapies that become available for testing.

‘Significant contribution’

There are around 5,000 people suffering from MND in the UK. The degenerative condition causes the loss of motor cells in the spinal column causing a series of problems for speech, mobility, swallowing and, ultimately, leading to death.

Typically, those with MND have around 18 months to three years to live after diagnosis and the new technique being developed at MMU could provide sufferers with more time to achieve personal goals.

Dr Emma Hodson-Tole is a Reader in the School of Healthcare Science, specialising in neuromuscular mechanics and physiology

“Because the needles are uncomfortable, a diagnostic process including ultrasound imaging of the muscles could make a significant contribution to improving patient experience,” she said.


“MND is a disease where you get a loss of cells in the spinal column, particularly the motor cells that link to the fibres in the muscle. When that connection is lost, there are involuntary muscle twitches.

“People might get those normally but when it’s pathological, you start to experience an increase in the number of twitches.

“As part of the diagnosis, they have to identify the occurrence of these twitches in multiple body regions – the legs, arms or neck. It’s quite an extensive test and there is a level of pain associated with it.

“We know that imaging using ultrasound is a more sensitive way than needles.”


Experts from different schools within the Faculty of Science and Engineering form an existing collaboration of disciplines that is already working together to develop methods of analysing ultrasound images to improve understanding of muscle structure and function.

The group, together with their clinical collaborator at Preston Royal Hospital, has already successfully secured funding from the Motor Neurone Disease Association for a PhD student and is aiming to secure more money for the project. The initial research has already earned the academics an award at an innovation showcase at Preston Royal Hospital.

“At this point, we have developed preliminary techniques based on ultrasound images we collected from a small number of people who have been diagnosed with MND,” said Dr Hodson-Tole. 

“We plan to further test and improve these techniques once we have collected images from a larger number of people with the disease.

‘Valuable tool’

“Scientists have previously collected ultrasound images of these muscle twitches before, but their assessment has been based on manual observations, which is very subjective. We want to provide a more objective and quantitative approach which will become a valuable tool for healthcare providers.”

The next step is to classify the array of twitches and their characteristics, with the findings feeding back into the  team’s diagnostic technique and boosting their ability to monitor the disease’s progression.

Dr Hodson-Tole added: “An image-based screening process could help people be diagnosed quickly, giving them time to put their life goals in place.

“They will have more time to complete activities they want to and it will benefit families and friends as well by letting them know what the problem is rather than people suffering from undiagnosed symptoms.”

The MMU academics involved in the project are:  Professor Ian Loram, Dr Nick Costen, Dr Pete Harding and PhD student Kate Bibbings. Consultant Neurophysiologist at Preston Royal Hospital, Dr Nick Combes, is collaborating with the team.

Manchester Metropolitan University

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