Aussie scientists able to predict Alzheimer's risk five years early

When do you need to worry that your faulty memory could turn into Alzheimer’s?

It is a question that plagues many of us as we age and start to notice that our brain is not as flexible and agile as it once was.

Now a team of Australian scientists believe that they are able to predict when a person suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI), or a slightly failing memory and ability to complete tasks, will develop Alzheimer’s.

Read: Can you buy a better brain with ‘smart pills’?

The scientists from the Australian National University (ANU) believe that their discovery will allow people suffering with MCI to know five years in advance whether or not they are at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and the process doesn’t even involve a hospital visit.

Before this discovery, there was no practical way for doctors or scientists to link any deterioration in a patient’s brain condition to the likelihood of their developing Alzheimer’s disease, instead relying on invasive tests.

Professor Nicolas Cherbuin, head of the ANU’s Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing, explained that the research enabled his team to examine the data of patients with MCI and accurately predict whether they were at risk of developing Alzheimer’s up to five years prior to a potential diagnosis.

Read: Calculator predicts your risk of dementia

“We have the ability to see into the future and estimate whether they are at low, moderate or high risk,” Prof. Cherbuin said.

“This gives patients more time to plan for their future, get their affairs in order and talk to family members about how best to move forward.”

He also explained that the early diagnosis would allow those at risk to implement plans to try and stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s for longer. This could include eating a healthy diet, exercising more and decreasing other significant risk factors.

Read: Scientists find the source of good memory

“Knowing whether someone is at risk of developing Alzheimer’s five years in the future is really positive in terms of being able to improve health outcomes for patients by giving them the best advice as early as possible,” he said.

Dementia advocate Cathy Ryan said knowing whether her dad was at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease years in advance would have been significant for him and their family in terms of planning for the future and processing what was to come.

“After putting my dad through some rigorous tests and an MRI of his brain, the diagnosis was that he ‘had MCI but had recently crossed the line over to Alzheimer’s disease’,” she said.

“We were fortunate to get a fairly early diagnosis from a specialist, but I often wonder what might have played out if that diagnosis had happened earlier.

“I believe this research is vital to improving our understanding of what MCI is because there is a real lack of awareness and knowledge about this condition and how it can potentially lead to Alzheimer’s.”

The team used the blood biomarker called plasma neurofilament light chain (pNFL) – a type of reading that measures fragments of dying neurons from the brain that have trickled into the bloodstream – along with the patients’ Mini-Mental State Examination scores to predict the likelihood of a person’s chances of progressing from MCI to Alzheimer’s.

The blood sample is taken by needle, and is less invasive and more accessible than other diagnostic procedures such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans.

Prof. Cherbuin hopes pNFL measurements will become more widely used in the healthcare sector to provide a more comfortable experience for patients throughout the diagnostic stage.

“We hope, through this research, we are able to provide more choices to patients and their families by giving them plenty of time to introduce positive lifestyle changes and hopefully delay the onset of this terrible disease for as long as possible,” he said.

Are you worried that your faulty memory could develop into Alzheimer’s? Are you glad there may soon be a test available that doesn’t require a full brain scan? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Ben



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