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YOUR HEALTH: A blood test that could detect Alzheimer's earlier

A team at Washington University is studying proteins that could give doctors another tool toward early diagnosis

ST. LOUIS — Every 60 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer's Disease.

"There is a huge need for new Alzheimer's disease treatments," admitted Washington University researcher Jason Ulrich.

Those St. Louis researchers are looking at one major breakthrough in the lab, a blood test that predicts the onset of Alzheimer's 20 years before symptoms occur. 

It works by detecting the build up of microscopic clumps of amyloid plaques in the brain.

"These clumps kind of break up the communication between our neurons that are needed for us to think and remember and do things that we normally do," said Washington University Neurology professor Dr. Randall Bateman.

Those researchers report that when the amyloid levels are combined with age and a gene variant, brain changes can be identified with 94% accuracy. 

But that's not all. 

Now they are working to create a blood test to determine the presence of tangles that occur after Alzhemier's symptoms appear.

"So, when people do have subtle memory problems, we can tell whether, is it really due to Alzheimer's disease, or is it likely due to some other cause?" said Dr. Bateman, the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Distinguished Professor of Neurology.

These simple blood tests could be available during a regular doctors visit within two years, bypassing the need for expensive tests and procedures.

"We can send as many people as we want to get a blood test and they can get it that day," explained neurologist Dr. Suzanne Schindler.

Another breakthrough uses antibodies to alert the immune system to the presence of plaques and directs immune cells to remove them.

"When we administer it to mouse models that develop this disease, it removes these plaques from the brain and from the blood vessels," said Ulrich.

Detection isn't easy to see

Experts say that more than 6 million Americans aged 65 and older may have Alzheimer's.

Memory problems are usually one of the first signs, although initial symptoms may vary from person to person. 

A decline in vision/spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment, may also signal early stages of Alzheimer's disease. 

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition that can be an early sign, but not everyone with MCI will develop the disease. 

The time from diagnosis to death varies as little as three or four years if a person is older than 80 when diagnosed, to as long as 10 or more years if a person is younger.

How the test works

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have shown that levels of a specific protein in the blood rise as amyloid plaques form in the brain. 

The protein can be detected in the blood of people who have yet to show signs of mild cognitive impairment, making it a promising test to diagnose Alzheimer's before symptoms appear.

The blood test shows promise at distinguishing people with amyloid in their brains from those without. 

They realized that a different Alzheimer's protein, called Tau, may also be useful for identifying which people have amyloid plaques silently gathering in their brains. 

"The finding of a unique tau species that is closely linked to changes caused by amyloid plaques will help to identify and predict people who have or will likely develop Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Bateman.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.