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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Blood test for Alzheimer’s in development

Testing blood samples for a natural, brain-protecting steroid could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, according to new research.

What do we know already?

Around 750,000 people in the UK have dementia, a condition that damages memory and the ability to think. For about half of these people, their dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

Although Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, it’s difficult to diagnose. It usually develops gradually, and early symptoms can be mistaken for the mild memory problems that lots of people get as they grow older.

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s at an early stage can make it easier to plan the person’s care – for example by providing support that helps them stay independent for as long as possible. Researchers are looking for new tests that can help diagnose Alzheimer’s reliably. A new study shows that a blood test may be useful in finding out whether someone has Alzheimer’s disease.

What does the new study say?

After a process called oxidation, blood samples from Alzheimer’s patients were lower in a natural steroid called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA helps the brain work and protects it from damage.

The difference in DHEA levels between Alzheimer’s patients and healthy people means that a simple blood test could be used to help diagnose the disease, the researchers say.

In blood taken from healthy people, oxidation led to a 53 percent increase in DHEA. However, when the test was repeated on blood from people with Alzheimer’s, there was a much smaller increase in DHEA – around 14 percent for people with mild Alzheimer’s, and just 4 percent for severe Alzheimer’s.

The researchers think the test works because, in people with Alzheimer’s, the body has used up the chemicals needed to produce DHEA in an effort to protect the brain. So, when treated in a lab, blood from healthy people can produce more DHEA, but not blood from Alzheimer’s patients.

How reliable are the findings?

The study looked at just 86 people. It’s not clear yet exactly how reliable the test would be in practice. The differences in DHEA between healthy people and those with the early May 12, 2011 - page 1 of 2 stages of Alzheimer’s may not be big enough for the test to accurately identify Alzheimer’s until the more advanced stages, which would limit its usefulness.

There were also signs that the test could give different results for men and women, although with the relatively small number of people in the study it’s hard to be sure.

Where does the study come from?

The researchers were based in the United States and Canada. Their study appeared in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, published by IOS Press.

What does this mean for me?

The test is still experimental, and isn’t likely to be used by doctors without more research. However, it raises the possibility of new tests for Alzheimer’s that could be used alongside the current methods of diagnosis, which include a medical history and tests of memory.

There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, although drugs can slow the disease’s progression slightly, and help the person live independently for longer without needing care in a nursing home. Getting the right care and support can also make a difference to both the patient and those caring for them..... Read more....

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