The Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study, backed by the Medical Research Council, aims to identify biomarkers that allow Alzheimer’s to be diagnosed at an early stage, when there are no obvious symptoms.
Success could herald a revolution in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, with drugs being used to halt progress of the disease before irreparable damage to the brain has occurred.
Between 2002 and 2012, 99 per cent of clinical trials testing new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease ended in failure.
A likely reason for the disappointing trend is that drugs are tested on people whose brains are already badly damaged.
Clear symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as severe memory loss, confusion and mood changes, only appear after the disease has progressed for many years, experts believe.
Experimental treatments may be far more effective if administered at earlier stages – but first some way has to be found of identifying patients with early Alzheimer’s.
A total of 250 study participants will undergo up to 50 tests designed to detect early signs of dementia.
The procedures will include detailed measurements of movement and gait using wearable devices and retinal imaging to spot subtle changes affecting vision. Blood, urine and cerebrospinal fluid samples will also be analysed.
The potential new biomarkers will be used both alone and alongside established tests such as brain imaging and assessments of memory and thinking ability.
Lead scientist Professor Simon Lovestone, from Oxford University, said: “We know that Alzheimer’s disease starts long before it is noticed by those with the disease or their doctor. Previous studies have shown changes to the brain as early as 10 to 20 years before symptoms arise.
“If we can identify the biomarkers present in this very early stage, we have the chance of treating the disease earlier, which is vital if we are to prevent damage to people’s memory and thinking.
“We are indebted to those volunteers taking part in the study whose time and effort will make a real difference to our ability to diagnose and treat this disease.”
Some of the volunteers will be considered at risk of developing Alzheimer’s due to their age, genes, and performance in memory tests. Others will not be at-risk individuals.
Around 850,000 people in the UK are believed to suffer from some form of dementia, the majority of them having Alzheimer’s.
In less than 10 years the number of dementia patients in Britain is predicted to reach a million, soaring to two million by 2051.