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Detecting Alzheimer's Early, Is It Possible?


A research team at University College London is among the latest group to report on a way to possibly detect Alzheimer’s early, before symptoms become apparent. The new testing technique, which is more invasive than some other early detection attempts, requires a lumbar puncture followed by an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

Is it possible to detect Alzheimer’s early?

The team from University College London studied 105 healthy individuals in their 70s and 80s. First they performed a lumbar puncture to extract cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) so they could measure levels of a protein called amyloid, which is typically found in low levels in the CSF of people who have Alzheimer’s.

Over the following year all the subjects underwent an MRI of the brain to determine the rate of shrinkage. They found that the brains of individuals with low CSF levels (38 percent of the group) of amyloid shrank twice as fast as the brains of those who had higher levels of the protein.

Individuals with low amyloid levels were also five times more likely to have the APOE4 gene, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s, and they also had higher levels of tau, another protein characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

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Another early detection test for Alzheimer’s was reported recently from Brunel University. The new 30-second screening test is designed for people in their 40s and offers the possibility of screening people long before symptoms are evident.

Professor David Bunce, PhD, of the Centre for Mental Health Research at Australian National University and a visiting fellow at Brunel University, led the research on the new test, which reportedly can identify potential signs of Alzheimer’s using a computer procedure based on a person’s reaction times. The test could be available in two to five years.

Other research has been conducted at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, where scientists have developed an x-ray technique they hope will help track amyloid plaques. The researchers hope the sophisticated x-ray machine will allow them to detect Alzheimer’s disease early.

Scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, along with colleagues from Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the University of Southern California, have used a noninvasive eye exam to detect plaques in the retinas of mice genetically modified to have Alzheimer’s disease. The authors believe their observations provide the potential of an eye imaging technique to diagnose early Alzheimer’s disease via plaque on the retina.

Is it possible to detect Alzheimer’s disease early? The BBC quoted Dr. Anne Corbett of the Alzheimer’s Society, whose comment about the University College London study could apply to all such efforts: “Detecting dementia early is really important. It can open doors to new treatment targets and could one day go hand in hand with an Alzheimer’s vaccine that scientists are edging slowly towards.”

Brookhaven National Laboratory
Brunel University news release, Nov. 10, 2010
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center news release, June 24, 2010