A research team in Belgium discovered a new test that has proven successful at identifying patients that are developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to a report published in the Archives of Neurology on Tuesday.
The study took spinal fluid from patients with varying levels of cognitive memory and looked for a specific protein signature or biomarker that has been attributed to Alzheimer’s.
Researchers tested more than 300 seniors—some with the disease, some suffering with recall difficulty, and some with no sign of Alzheimer’s. The study proved that 90 percent of the patients already diagnosed with the disease had the particular protein characteristic. Seventy-two percent of patients with some memory problems tested positive for the protein, and only 32 percent of patients in the normal cognition group had the biomarker.
Even more fascinating were the results of a second test of deceased patients confirmed to have Alzheimer’s. In that study, 64 out of 68 patients tested positive for the protein.
Healthcare professionals hope that the test can be used to detect Alzheimer’s way before the disease takes hold. Presently, the only way physicians can prove that a patient has the disease is post-mortem, making it very hard to isolate and treat it. Instead, doctors diagnose the disease through process of elimination—not the most reassuring method.
The downside to the test is that the spinal tap used to capture the fluid is notoriously painful, so it’s doubtful that healthy adults would elect to undergo the procedure—especially if insurance doesn’t cover it. There is also a fear of depression due to early detection or a false positive. The fact is, there are no medicines on the market to stop or slow the disease, so treatment—at this time—is fairly futile.
For the pharma industry, the new test could help researchers isolate trial participants by those most likely to have the disease, rather than test a broad range of people with cognitive problems, many of which might not have Alzheimer’s.
“We have to go very early to patients who have just the beginnings of Alzheimer’s in their brains—those are the people we need to identify to test the treatments,” Stephen Ferris at New York University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center told CBS News. “That’s why these spinal fluid tests are going to be extremely important over the next few years.”