Stories about a new blood test that may detect Alzheimer’s disease three years before the onset of major symptoms has been making the rounds on most major news outlets.
The claim: Georgetown University scientists have pinpointed a parcel of 10 fats that, if present in an individual’s blood, can predict whether that individual will develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s disease within a few years. An analysis of the test’s effectiveness, conducted on 525 older individuals (with a minimum age if 70), found that the presence or absence of these fats in a person’s blood could determine, with 90 percent accuracy, whether or not that individual would experience some form of dementia in the future.
The presence of these particular fats appears to be indicative of membrane disintegration in neurons, which can lead to cognitive impairment due to brain cell death.
Study author Howard Federoff, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and executive vice president for health sciences at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) says the blood test has the potential to “change how patients, their families and treating physicians plan for and manage the disorder,” according to a GUMC statement.
The value of diagnosis, despite no cure
What makes this particular test so extraordinary, especially since science isn’t close to developing a cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s disease?
Experts agree that the key to coming up with an effective Alzheimer’s cure or treatment is to figure out how to discover the disease earlier in its progression.
The problem is, most people often seek cognitive testing only after they start experiencing symptoms such as memory loss and confusion; when it may be too late to effectively intervene in the disease. But research has shown that telltale signs of Alzheimer’s—beta amyloid protein deposits and brain shrinkage—may show up decades in advance of a person actually showing concerning signs. “The preclinical (before symptoms start) state of the disease offers a window of opportunity for a timely disease-modifying intervention,” says Federoff.
Scans designed to spot plaque deposits and changes in brain size have already been developed, as well as a lumbar puncture test to identify potentially harmful proteins in a person’s spinal fluid. But Federoff and his team are the first to find an Alzheimer’s biomarker that can be detected via a simple blood test.
But biomarker analyses alone aren’t enough to make a confident Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Identifying the disease requires a series of tests, both biological and cognitive.
Even then, misdiagnoses are still common, as AgingCare Blogger and dementia patient, David Hilfiker, discusses in his article, “How is it Possible My Alzheimer’s Was Cured?”
Keeping Alzheimer‘s advances in perspective
Federoff says he and his colleagues are currently in the process of developing a clinical trial where the blood test will be used to identify those at-risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease so that they can be given an experimental therapy aimed at delaying or preventing the ailment.
He admits that, while this latest discovery signifies an important step towards the goal of finding a cure and/or treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, it will likely be years before such a test can be used on a widespread scale.