It's Official: Early Detection of Alzheimer's Seems to Be Possible

By Veronique Greenwood | April 19, 2011 2:32 pm

What’s the News: Alzheimer’s is getting an update: for the first time in 27 years, the national criteria for diagnosing the disease have been revised. The new criteria are intended only for use by researchers studying the disease, but they are important because they acknowledge growing evidence for an early stage of Alzheimer’s that could be detectable with biological tests before cognitive impairment sets in.

What’s the Context:

  • Alzheimer’s disease, which involves the gradual loss of memory, language, and other mental skills, affects more than five million people in the U.S., mostly elderly. In autopsies—the only sure way of diagnosing the disease—the brains of Alzheimer’s patients are dotted with clumps, or plaques, of a protein called beta amyloid, and may show other signs of neurological damage. Doctors rely on cognitive tests and general assessment to make diagnoses while patients are alive. There is no cure; several drugs are used to slow progression, with limited success.
  • However, a rash of studies from the last few years indicate that biological signs of the disease may be detectable years before people become impaired: new brain scans and tests of spinal fluid in research studies show promise for detecting the disease in its early stages. In particular, abnormal levels of proteins amyloid and tau seem to be “biomarkers” for the disease.
  • The new criteria, developed by the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association, describe an early phase of the disease that’s identifiable only with biomarkers, adding to the previously existing descriptions of a middle phase with mild cognitive impairment and a late phase with profound dementia. But because the new tests are still being developed—they haven’t been standardized and rigorously tested—they’re only for use in research. (For more detail, check out the Alzheimer’s Association’s FAQ (pdf).)

The Future Holds: For now, researchers will use the criteria to make sure that they’re all using the same definition of early stage Alzheimer’s in their studies. Tests won’t be hitting your doctor’s office any time soon, but revising the guidelines for diagnosis to include biomarkers indicates that the scientific community is moving in that general direction.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Daniel J. Andrews

    Would you want to know early on if you’re developing Alzheimer’s? If there’s no cure (yet) is living in ignorance of what is lurking in your head the better option? Unless you die from something else you’ll find out eventually, but at least you’ll have a few more years of being unaware.

    Maybe those drugs which slow the progression with limited success might be more effective if they are able to catch it years earlier though, in which case you would want to know.

    I think I’d want to know early even if the drugs weren’t going to help much.

  • Steviepinhead

    You (and your close relatives) might make distinctly different plans for your late-life care if you knew Alzheimer’s was in your longer-range forecast.

    And the timing and contents of your “bucket list” might be affected, as well…

  • kheun

    May be the abnormal levels of proteins amyloid and tau are causing Alzheimer. Currently, we need more data to prove it. If they are really the real cause, restoring them to normal level should be able to prevent Alzheimer.

  • Pete

    I’m an idiot and Discovermagazine let me post my inane comment on here anyways. Go take your medication, Dad.

  • http://discovermagazine christina

    My Dad has Alzheimer and its very possible that i could inharit it what do i do

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