University of Central Florida (UCF) researchers have developed a rapid detector for dopamine that could help diagnose brain conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and depression.

Low levels of the chemical dopamine are known to be associated with Parkinson’s and depression.

Studies additionally revealed that higher dopamine is linked to certain tumours, offering hope that the new device may enable the diagnosis of these cancers.

“We need to monitor dopamine so that we can adjust our medical doses to help address those problems.”

UCF NanoScience Technology Center associate professor Debashis Chanda said: “A neurotransmitter like dopamine is an important chemical to monitor for our overall well-being so we can help screen out neural disorders like Parkinson’s disease, various brain cancers, and monitor mental health.

“We need to monitor dopamine so that we can adjust our medical doses to help address those problems.”

The researchers noted that existing approaches to detect dopamine are time-consuming, as well as need sample preparation and specialised laboratory equipment.

However, the new palm-sized sensor is said to require a few drops of blood and delivers results within minutes rather than hours because no separate lab is necessary for sample processing.

The sensor’s chip separates plasma from the blood while the cerium oxide nanoparticles coating its surface selectively capture dopamine from the plasma.

This capture of dopamine molecules is indicated by the light reflected from the sensor, where an optical readout represents the dopamine level.

Commenting on the role of the cerium oxide nanoparticles, UCF Materials Science and Engineering department engineering professor and chair Sudipta Seal said: “Getting the sensor to be sensitive to dopamine had been quite the challenge for researchers for a while, but using altered cerium oxide nanostructures on the sensing platform was key in making the sensor work.”

The team noted that reduced steps and processing ensure that the new test is cost-effective and can be used at point-of-care instead of a separate lab.