Researchers at the University of Texas Medical School have come up with a potential new way to identify people with Alzheimer's disease years before symptoms appear, by tracking defective proteins in cerebrospinal fluid. The technique, reported in the journal Cell Reports
, could lead to a new test for the memory-robbing condition.
The new study shows that tiny, misfolded protein fragments — believed to be the main culprit in Alzheimer's — can be detected in the spinal fluid of patients with the disease. Using the method to flag patients likely to develop dementia could lead to early diagnosis of the disease and speed treatments that have a better chance of working, before extensive brain damage sets in.
Scientists used to believe amyloid plaques that form in the brains of Alzheimer's patients were the primary causes of the disease.
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"Now it seems clear that the [plaque] aggregates are not the main culprits, it's their [protein] precursors," said lead researcher Claudio Soto. "This is the key molecule and could be the best, most reliable way to make an early diagnosis. That's been the biggest problem in the field: you can't identify patients until they are already sick.
"Those [proteins] may be circulating in the body years if not decades before cognitive symptoms arise."
In the new study, Soto and his colleagues used a newly developed technology that can detect the proteins at lowers concentrations than was possible previously. The next step, Soto said, is to adapt the technology for use with blood or urine samples, which would be much easier to obtain than cerebrospinal fluid for screening healthy people for biochemical signs of Alzheimer's disease.
Soto suggested the technique may also be used to diagnose other conditions, such as Parkinson's disease, and predicted an approved test could be on the market in as little as three years.
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