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A straightforward blood test could help detect the early signs of Alzheimer's disease, according to a new study in the US.
Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Germany, published in Nature magazine, found that the test could also indicate other brain conditions, such as a stroke or multiple sclerosis.
The test detects conditions by identifying neurofilament light chain (LFC), a kind of structural protein that is normally part of the internal neuron skeleton and only leaks into the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord - and from there into the bloodstream - when there is brain damage.
As a result, detecting high levels of the protein in blood can indicate the presence of a problem. It also means a spinal tap is not required.
Among those tested in the study were more than 400 patients who have been involved in Washington University's research into the roots of Alzheimer's. This included 247 individuals who had a faulty gene known to cause early-onset Alzheimer's. They showed gradually rising levels of LFC. The study also included 162 unaffected relatives of this group. Among those with the faulty genes, there is a 50 per cent chance of passing these on to their children.
This showed that the disease could be detected as much as 16 years before the first symptoms set in. This could be particularly useful in enabling health professionals to target new treatments that might slow or halt the onset of Alzheimer's in those in whom elevated levels of LFC have been detected.
Co-author of the study Brian Gordon, an assistant professor of radiology at Washington University's Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, said: "This is something that would be easy to incorporate into a screening test in a neurology clinic.
"We validated it in people with Alzheimer's disease because we know their brains undergo lots of neurodegeneration, but this marker isn't specific for Alzheimer's. High levels could be a sign of many different neurological diseases and injuries."
Written by Martin Lambert
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