Updated: Feb 1, 2021
Currently, more than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. That’s
more than the entire population of Colorado, Minnesota, or twenty-eight other US states!
As one of the top ten leading causes of death in the United States, Alzheimer’s disease
represents a major burden on the US healthcare system. In 2020 alone, this disease is estimated to cost over $305B. Recognizing the enormity of the challenge, the federal government established the National Alzheimer's Project Act (NAPA) to leverage advances in research to help change the trajectory of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.
While there is no known cure, Alzheimer’s disease management primarily involves delaying onset of symptoms, providing supportive therapy, and managing behavioral symptoms. All of these are benefitted by early disease detection. To this end, a recent study may prove to be a game-changer. This study, published in the journal Nature Aging, has demonstrated two molecules in the blood of people (the so-called predictive biomarkers) that can predict the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's disease later in life.
In a study conducted on 573 people in their 60s and 70s, blood samples were collected and over a period of time, the people were examined for cognitive (brain) function, mainly memory and thinking problems. These types of problems are commonly seen in Alzheimer’s disease patients. The study found two proteins in the blood that had a success rate of 88% in predicting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease over the next four years. These two proteins are called P-tau181 and neurofilament light polypeptide (NfL). Further research is needed to study details about these proteins, including but not limited to how their levels are in the population, and how their levels are associated with severity of the disease.
Many scientists and physicians in the field are excited by this finding. Richard Oakley, who is head of research at the Alzheimer's Society, agrees that diagnosing cases early in the course of the disease could assist intervention using experimental treatments. Another important function of this test would be to differentiate Alzheimer’s from other causes of dementia that are treatable. Sara Imarisio, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, adds: "Any future dementia treatments will likely need to be given early in the disease process, making it even more important to take findings like these forward - to improve how we diagnose early memory and thinking problems."
This study on Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers in blood represents a major advance in early disease detection. Similar studies need to be undertaken to help physicians and scientists in making individualized risk assessments for patients with dementia. These studies hold the key to precision medicine for neurodegenerative diseases.
Written By Sandeep Pingle, MD, PhD, Scientist
Keywords: CureScience, Alzheimer’s, NAPA, Dementia