Blood tests could hold key to early Alzheimer’s diagnosis before memory loss

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By Alice Tuohy | Monday 21 January 2019

Nature Medicine: Serum neurofilament dynamics predicts neurodegeneration and clinical progression in presymptomatic Alzheimer’s Disease

Researchers have developed a test to detect biological signs associated with the early stages of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. The findings are published today (Monday 21 January) in the scientific journal Nature Medicine.

The researchers looked at blood samples from people in the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer’s Network (DIAN) study who have rare inherited forms of Alzheimer’s disease caused by a faulty gene.

The team particularly looked at levels of the neurofilament light chain protein (Nfl), a structural component of brain nerve cells. When these cells are damaged, Nfl leaks out from the brain and can end up in the bloodstream.

Scientists found changes in the levels of Nfl in blood samples in people who were in the very early stages of inherited Alzheimer’s disease. These changes were detectable before people developed any symptoms of the disease.

Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“We know that the brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s begin well over a decade before memory problems start. This presents a key window of opportunity for tests that could detect the disease at the earliest stages and help to bring diagnosis forward by many years. Neurofilament light chain is a protein being explored by a number of research teams in the UK and internationally and it’s positive to see this work developing at pace.

“While the researchers in this small study found an association between changes in levels of the blood protein and the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the participants in the research had rare, inherited forms of the disease. The next stage of research will need to explore whether this approach could help to spot signs of the more common, non-inherited form of Alzheimer’s and how much of the protein would need to be detected to raise health concerns.

“Tests for a blood-based signature of Alzheimer’s hold potential as a cost-effective addition to current diagnosis methods that would allow people to receive treatment and support sooner. Alzheimer’s Research UK is funding millions of pounds of research to improve detection of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia so that we can act against these diseases at a much earlier stage.”


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Alice Tuohy