Test could open doors for treatments.
Alzheimer’s disease, a common form of dementia, is a serious condition without a cure, and often worsens as it progresses. However, researchers have developed a simple blood test that can predict whether a healthy person will develop Alzheimer’s symptoms within two or three years. If larger studies show promising results, the test could fill major gaps in the understanding of brain degeneration, which is thought to show symptoms at a stage when it is too late to effectively treat.
Neurologist Howard Federoff of Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. led the latest study. He and his team tested participants’ memory and cognition skills, and took blood samples approximately once a year for five years. Using mass spectroscopy, the blood plasma of fifty-three of the participants was analyzed with Alzheimer’s disease; eighteen developed symptoms during the study, and thirty-five who remained relatively cognitively healthy.
In those participants with Alzheimer’s, the research team found ten phospholipids that were present at lower levels in the blood than normal. The source of the ten molecules is not known, though they are suspected to be present in cell membranes. Federoff proposes that concentrations of the phospholipids might reflect the breakdown of neural-cell membranes.
A test based on the work of Federoff and his team would be advantageously simple. Monique Breteler, head of epidemiology at the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Bonn, claims: “If you are able to screen the population for those destined to get Alzheimer’s, and who may therefore benefit from any treatment that is developed, then you need to use material you can access easily, like blood.”
Other research has found differences in patterns of other molecules in the blood of people with Alzheimer’s when compared to healthy controls. Case-control studies are tricky, however, as they often fail to take into account normal variation between individuals. Federoff hopes to have his results validated in independent labs, in larger studies, using a more diverse range of participants.
“We also have to look at different age groups and a more diverse racial mix,” Federoff stated.
There is currently no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s. The disease is expected to double every twenty years worldwide: from 35.6 million individuals in 2010, to approximately 115.4 million by 2050, according to the World Health Organization. Many efforts to develop drugs to delay Alzheimer’s progression have failed, mainly because the drugs were evaluated too late in the disease process.
The results of this test have researchers hopeful, as it opens the doors to developing earlier treatment options.
“The preclinical state of the disease offers a window of opportunity for timely disease-modifying intervention,” Federoff said. After more testing undergoes, a screening test based on the findings could be available in as little as two years.