A NEW test has been developed that could identify Alzheimer’s up to five years before any symptoms appear.
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University, in the United States, have developed a method to monitor shifts in proteins in spinal fluid associated with the illness.
Imbalances in the proteins can indicate changes to the nervous system that are known to cause the build-up of damaging “plaques” in the brain.
Once identified, patients could receive preventative treatment to slow down the process in the nervous system which would be ineffective once the early signs of the illness have appeared, according to the study in the journal Neurology.
The team identified 265 middle-aged, healthy volunteers, 75 per cent of whom had a higher than normal risk of developing the disorder due to a family connection.
They then subjected them to a battery of neuropsychological tests and a physical examinations between 1995 and 2005 and again in 2009.
Only 53 of the participants developed mild cognitive impairment, such as repeating themselves, or forgetting appointments or what others had said.
Dr Marilyn Albert, a neurologist at the university, likened the process to the early treatment of heart disease and said she believed Alzheimer’s begins developing in the brain for more than a decade before any symptoms are displayed.
Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia are the most frequently occurring illnesses affecting the brain labelled under the umbrella term “dementia” and most cases are caused by a combination of the two.
Scotland’s leading dementia charity, Alzheimer’s Scotland, estimates that there are more than 86,000 people with the disease in Scotland in 2013. Whilst age is the greatest risk factor, there are around 3,000 sufferers under the age of 65.
The charity predicts the number of cases will double within the next 25 years as 7,500 people develop the illness every year – but it warns only half of them will receive a formal diagnosis.
A spokesman said: “This is a very interesting piece of research which could help to improve diagnosis rates of Alzheimer’s disease at a pre-symptomatic stage.
“However, we would need to see further studies to verify the data suggested here. There are over 86,000 people currently with dementia in Scotland and around 7,500 people develop the illness every year – but only half of them will receive a formal diagnosis. We would encourage anyone who is concerned about dementia or worried about their memory to speak to their GP as soon as possible.”
Alzheimer’s disease may be among the most costly diseases for society in Europe and the United States in terms of health care, according to research.
Dr Albert said that whilst the results of the study were enough to guide the use of early treatments and help to develop new drugs, it would not be enough to accurately predict the rate Alzheimer’s was progressing.