Today, more than 6 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. Unlike many diseases that can be spotted early enough to start meaningful treatment, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease typically comes years after it has advanced.
However, hope is building that recent gains in research could someday help detect Alzheimer’s disease early. Recent studies using blood and urine tests, imaging of the brain and even an infrared sensor all highlight the many efforts aimed at making an incurable disease curable. If successful, these diagnostic tools could let people potentially benefit from effective treatments before the disease has progressed too far.
Let’s take a look at how Alzheimer’s disease works and the promising research and testing being developed today that will give us hope for tomorrow.
Alzheimer’s Disease Doesn’t Immediately Show
Mild memory loss is usually the first noticeable symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. As the condition worsens, people often lose the ability to communicate and properly function. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes the disease, but as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, age and genetics play a role, while education, environment, diet and other diseases might also be involved.
For years, the disease has been diagnosed through mental status and neurophysiological tests, as well as laboratory analyses and brain imaging, as the Mayo Clinic explains. But because it often takes months or even years of memory issues and other behavior to form a discernible pattern for family members or friends to notice, a clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease usually comes once the condition has progressed.
Yet, scientists no longer view Alzheimer’s disease as an end-of-life condition and are focusing on how its triggers influence the brain, causes that the National Institute on Aging explains in detail. The researchers’ focus includes determining how the natural amyloid-beta protein creates plaques that disrupt cell function, seeing how the tau protein collects inside neurons and studying the role of chronic inflammation, vascular problems and diminishing neuronal connections.
Discovering New Ways to Detect Alzheimer’s Disease
These areas of research are behind several possible new ways to detect Alzheimer’s disease early. Here are a few promising methods that are currently in development:
A Blood Test for Alzheimer’s Disease
University of Washington researchers devised a laboratory test that can detect the levels of amyloid-beta protein in people early on. Their test spotted the protein not only in the blood of people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and moderate-to-severe Alzheimer’s but also in those who later developed MCI, according to Medical News Today.
Finding a Key Molecule in Urine
Another research team claimed to be the first to recognize a molecule in urine that can reveal early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Their test analyzed formic acid, a urinary biomarker. The researchers believe this easy test could lead to a widespread clinical push to frequently screen people’s urine to find Alzheimer’s disease early, as WalesOnline reported.
PET Scans as a Preventative Tool
Scientists at Lund University in Sweden studied the brains of 1,325 people who didn’t have signs of cognitive impairment using the imaging test known as positron emission tomography (PET). They discovered the amyloid-beta and tau proteins in some people and found they were significantly more at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to test participants who experienced very little to no cognitive decline years later, according to Medical News Today.
One of the lead researchers believes their findings demonstrate that an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis can be based on biology and what is seen in the brain. “If we can diagnose before cognitive challenges appear, we may eventually be able to use [a] drug to slow down the disease at a very early stage.”
Detecting a Protein Event Early
In 2022, researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany created an advanced blood test for Alzheimer’s disease that identified misfolded amyloid-beta biomarkers in plasma. The test isn’t an ordinary blood draw — instead, they used an immuno-infrared sensor.
As ScienceDaily reports, their discovery means they might be able to see signs of Alzheimer’s disease in blood up to 17 years before clinical symptoms appear.
Hope for a Brighter Future
These and many other studies are chasing a goal that had long seemed too distant to reach: early and effective diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease that can align with the many treatment therapies being developed today. While still not near enough, that distance finally doesn’t seem as far.
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