As researchers press for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, many are focusing on early detection and prevention. Early detection of Alzheimer’s can not only mitigate symptoms but potentially slow the progression of the disease as well. It can also help families prepare for a future with Alzheimer’s, outlining future caregiving plans.
One new study utilizes a blood test to detect evidence of protein changes and damage and can predict Alzheimer’s almost seven years before symptoms occur. Read more about this study.
A Blood Test to Predict Alzheimer’s
A team of researchers from Washington University in St. Louis and the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Tübingen found that a simple blood test that evaluates changes in neurofilament light chain protein levels can detect early signs of brain changes from Alzheimer’s before symptoms occur. The study was published in the January 21, 2019 edition of Nature Medicine.
Participants in the study were chosen from the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer’s Network which is comprised of people with a genetic mutation that guarantees they will develop Alzheimer’s early. The study also included family members who do not have the mutation.
To conduct the study, researchers took blood samples from 243 people who had the mutation and 162 who did not. Blood samples were taken once every three years for six to nine years. They examined levels of a protein known as “neurofilament light chain” which gives structural support to brain cells.
High levels of this blood protein are known to indicate brain changes or damage, showing in the blood of people with Alzheimer’s.
Every participant had some level of neurofilament light chain protein present in his or her blood that increased over time.
However, people who were genetically at risk for Alzheimer’s accumulated more of the protein at a faster rate than those without the gene.
Using Blood Tests in a Clinical Setting
Brian Gorden, Ph.D., an author of the study and assistant professor of radiology at Washington University’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology says that “This is something that would be easy to incorporate into a screening test in a neurology clinic. We validated it in people with Alzheimer’s because we know their brains undergo lots of neurodegeneration, but this marker isn’t specific for Alzheimer’s. High levels could be a sign of many different neurological diseases and injuries.”
Researchers hope future studies will reveal how much neurofilament light chain present indicates Alzheimer’s. While a commercial test similar to the one used by study authors is available, it has not been approved by the FDA to diagnose or predict an individual’s risk of Alzheimer’s.
“I could see this being used in the clinic in a few years to identify signs of brain damage in individual patients,” Dr. Gordon states. “We’re not at the point we can tell people, ‘In five years you’ll have dementia.’ We are all working towards that.”
Do you think a simple blood test will be able to predict Alzheimer’s in the next decade? Why or why not? We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.