Parkinson's gets progressively worse
Early use of medication may be able to slow down progression of Parkinson's disease, preliminary research suggests.
Patients who took the drug rasagiline soon after diagnosis had a less aggressive form of Parkinson's than those who did not take it until later.
The international study involved more than 1,000 patients, but doctors stress it could be 10 to 15 years before the long-term benefits become clear.
Details were presented at a neurological conference in Madrid.
More than 120,000 people in the UK have Parkinson's and around 10,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.
Symptoms of the progressive neurological disorder include shakes, memory loss and stiffening of the muscles.
Rasagiline, also known as Azilect, is already approved for use by the NHS to ease symptoms of Parkinson's.
However, some doctors are reluctant to prescribe medication at an early stage, due to concern that the effect can wane with time.
The latest study, presented at the European Federation of Neurological Societies Congress, involved patients from the UK, US and Europe.
It found that patients who took rasagiline immediately after diagnosis were in better shape after 18 months than those whose treatment with the drug was delayed by nine months.
The researchers believe that the drug could work by creating a long lasting protection for brain cells.
However, they stressed that many patients had been taking part in the study for just 18 months, and much more work was required to pin down the long-term impact.
Professor David Burn, from the University of Newcastle, one of the researchers who took part in the study described the results as "exciting".
He said: "The data show that early treatment can result in a slowing of clinical progression. These data are also consistent with an earlier trial with rasagiline which showed a similar outcome.
"This may offer real benefit to patients who are treated promptly after diagnosis."
Dr Kieran Breen, director of research for the Parkinson's Disease Society, said: "There is a feeling among doctors that you should not put somebody on a drug until you really, really have to, but this work suggests that giving drugs at an early stage has an effect over and above what you would expect."
However, Dr Breen said it was unclear whether the effect of early medication was specific to rasagiline, or a general phenomenon also associated with other drugs for the condition.
He said the research showed that the effect of the drug was very subtle. Patients given a regular 1mg dose of rasagline showed benefit, but not those given a higher dose of the drug.