Alzheimer’s: New studies could signal a revolution

Two new breakthroughs have taken scientists several steps closer to resolving the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease. One of the breakthroughs could lead to prevention of the disease while the other could transform its treatment.

At the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, blood tests that indicate a likelihood of Alzheimer’s have proved very promising. Meanwhile in the Netherlands, researchers have identified five biological variants of Alzheimer’s that could revolutionise treatment of the disease.

It’s all in the blood

Screening for Alzheimer’s is not new, but current methods are invasive and available to only a few. The two main methods are lumbar puncture and PET scan.

The PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan is used to measure the the build-up of abnormal amyloid protein in the brain – a key disease hallmark.

Changes in the levels of proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid can be measured through a lumbar puncture. Also known as a spinal tap, a lumbar puncture involves a needle being inserted into the lower back between bones.

Achieving the same level of predictability through a blood test would obviously be much simpler and likely cheaper. In the trials assessed by Gothenburg researchers, protein measurement is also the aim. Specifically, a protein known as p-tau217. The p-tau217 protein can start attacking neurons many years before any Alzheimer’s symptoms manifest.

Researchers used data from three different trials involving almost 800 people in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Participants were categorised people into likely, intermediate and unlikely to develop Alzheimer’s using p-tau217 measurements. Comparing the blood tests with existing methods, they were found to be just as effective, with a 95 per cent success rate.

According to David Curtis, honorary professor at UCL Genetics Institute, the implications of the research are huge. “Everybody over 50 could be routinely screened every few years,” he said, adding that it could be done in much the same way as screening for high cholesterol.

Implications for Alzheimer’s treatment

Prof. Curtis said successful early screening could also have implications for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. “It is possible that currently available treatments for Alzheimer’s disease would work better in those diagnosed early in this way.”

Similar implications may exist for research done in the Netherlands at the Alzheimer Center Amsterdam, Amsterdam UMC and Maastricht University. The research was published this month in Nature Aging. In identifying five biological variants of Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers concluded that previously tested drugs may incorrectly appear to be ineffective or only minimally effective.

The variants differ in the degree of protein synthesis and the functioning of the organ that produces cerebrospinal fluid. Patients with different Alzheimer’s variants also showed differences in other aspects of the disease. Certain subgroups, for example, showed the disease taking a faster course.

Learning that the effectiveness or otherwise of existing and previous drugs may have been misrepresented is not immediately heartening news. But the identification of the variants could help those drugs be better used in future. And it could open the door to a whole new suite of Alzheimer’s treatments.

Do you have concerns about developing Alzheimer’s in later life? Would you be prepared to take a blood test for the disease? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Link between visceral fat and early Alzheimer’s signs revealed

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