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Markers in Alzheimer’s focus of research

Researchs look at subjects’ blood to find risk of developing Alzheimer’s in later life.

A comprehensive study conducted by a team of researchers at Temple, the University of Rochester and Georgetown University may hold the key to detecting the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease – a simple blood test.

Susan Fisher, chair of the Department of Clinical Science at the School of Medicine, said typical Alzheimer’s patients progress from having normal brain function to mild cognitive impairment, before developing and fulfilling all of the criteria for having Alzheimer’s. The ultimate goal of the study was to predict the development of Alzheimer’s before the patient displayed any symptoms.

The research team recruited a group of 525 adults aged 75 and over who had no diagnosis of a neurologic disease and who were not on any medications that would have side effects that would affect their cognition.  The subjects were enrolled in the study over a course of two years, in Rochester, N.Y.,  California, and Washington.

“The goal of this study was to identify markers, lipid markers, from the blood that would predict or might show patients who are at the greatest risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Fisher said.

While enrolled, subjects had a sample of blood draw and completed a “full battery” of neuropsychological tests that evaluated the patients’ memory, attention and executive functions.  A series of language and visual tests were given also.

“So we did all this testing and we had this tube of blood,” Fisher said. “In the laboratory they examined this blood for a metabolic profile, a medical footprint of cells that might separate those who eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease to those who didn’t.”

The patients that participated in the study were followed for three years and studied once a year.  At the end of three years, the research team found 46 people who would have been categorized as MCI, but did not display symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Twenty-eight patients were found to have normal psychological functioning.

Three years later, all 74 of the patients were tested and found to have Alzheimer’s.

The team looked at the blood of these individuals by examining a small subset for different kinds of markers.  They found 10 lipids of fat that seem to be very different in people developing Alzheimer’s versus everyone else.

“We knew that once people had converted, you could go back and look at the initial blood test and see that the blood showed different characteristics than those that did not,” Fisher said.

That being said, ideally the team wants to be able to identify the 10 markers in the first group, take another test group with a small set of people who had progressed to Alzheimer’s, as well as a group that did not and examine their blood for the same 10 markers.  These 10 markers separate the two groups of people at 90 percent or greater accuracy.

According to the Susan G. Komen website, mammograms are typically only 78 percent accurate in detecting an abnormal breast lump in women ages 50 and older.

“90 percent is pretty darn good,” Fisher said.

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.  There are many treatments and suggested drugs for treating Alzheimer’s, but according to Fisher “none are particularly useful” because they have not halted the progression of the disease after diagnosis.

These drugs, however, are thought to perhaps be helpful in preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s if they are administered early. The testing that took place in the study allowed researchers to screen people who look like they may develop Alzheimer’s in the immediate future, and determine where they could get prevention treatment.

Although the initial study has been completed, there is still a bit of work to be done to find more about this breakthrough.

“I have to say, although we have a big sample size, we still only had a small sample of people within three years that developed Alzheimer’s disease,” Fisher said. “While these results are positive, they need to be tested more within a more diverse group of people.”

Logan Beck can be reached at logan.beck@temple.edu. 

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