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Alzheimer's Biomarker Research

Can we detect Alzheimer’s before clinical signs appear?

Biochem.Child Cancer.Joanna Williams and samples
Dr Margaret Ryan takes blood samples from the deep freeze to prepare them for testing

A research team at The University of Otago’s Brain Health Research Centre and Brain Research New Zealand is actively working on a better way of diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease earlier.

Researchers from a range of disciplines, including Anatomy, Biochemistry and Psychology, are developing a blood test which can identify people with Alzheimer’s disease. This work is now at a very promising stage.

Molecules in the blood called microRNA offer clues. Findings show that several microRNA are altered in people with the disease, and that three of these in particular can be used to identify those with the disease. When these markers are analysed together with a specific genetic marker that is a known disease risk factor, the team is able to accurately identify Alzheimer’s disease 86% of the time.

So far the test has been developed to identify people who already have the disease, but the team now aims to extend the work to identify those at risk before they show signs of dementia. Team leader on this project, Dr Joanna Williams, believes that this is where the work needs to go in the future.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop a blood test that would not only help diagnose Alzheimer’s, but could also spot the disease before people show any clinical signs,” she says, “Alzheimer’s begins some years before it’s clinically diagnosed, so development of such a test would mean that doctors could start treatment for the high-risk population much earlier than is currently possible.”

If signs of the disease can be picked up earlier with a simple blood test, we can make a difference by lessening the immense burden carried by affected individuals, their families and society as a whole.