A simple blood test has been utilised to spot a particular type of Alzheimer’s over a decade before any symptoms appear. The test may potentially be used to spot other neurodegenerative conditions such as MS.
Bryan Gordon, co-author of the study which was published in ‘Nature Medicine’, believes the test could be used in just a few years’ time to identify the signs of brain damage in individual patients.
According to the study, neurofilament light chain (NfL) is a promising biomarker for identifying disease progression for a number of conditions. This protein forms part of the structure of neurons in the brain but where the brain has neurons which are damaged or dying, the protein leaks into the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord. From there it enters the blood.
Although scientists already knew that high levels of protein in cerebrospinal fluid were evidence of brain cell damage, a lumbar puncture was necessary to carry out such tests. This procedure requires a visit to a hospital and whilst not particularly painful, it can cause a headache and some back pain for a few days. Gordon’s study looked at whether the finding of protein in blood was an effective alternative way to determine neuron damage.
The study concludes that NfL levels in the cerebrospinal fluid and serum are correlated with one another and are both raised in the early stages of Familial Alzheimer’s disease, even before symptoms appear. Therefore NfL dynamics in blood serum were effective at predicting disease progression and brain neurodegeneration in the early pre-symptomatic stages of the disease.
The form of Alzheimer’s that the study focused on, Familial Alzheimer’s Disease (FAD) is rare – affecting about 2 – 3% of all cases. It is inherited from a parent, passed down through genetics and typically has a much earlier onset than other types of the disease. Where a child inherits the mutation from one of its parents, it is almost certain to develop dementia at around the same age as the parents which may be as early as 30 or 40 years of age.
A spokesperson for Alzheimer’s Research UK noted that the next stage of research would be to look at whether the same approach could help detect the more common, non-inherited form of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is just one type of dementia but is the most common with more than 520,000 people in the UK suffering from this debilitating disease. Although it is typically associated with the elderly, it can affect anybody at any age and in the UK there are more than 40,000 under 65 with some form of dementia. A sensible step for any adult is to make two Lasting Powers of Attorney – one for finance decisions and the other for care decisions – nominating someone they trust to help them if they lose mental capacity. An accident or illness can impact capacity at any age and having these two vital documents in place ensures that critical decisions are made by someone trusted who understands the wishes and feelings of the person they are assisting.