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Detecting Alzheimer's Decades Early

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerMarch 29, 2019

Last Updated: March 29, 2019

With the Alzheimer’s epidemic on the rise, researchers are focusing their efforts on early detection and prevention to mitigate symptoms and potentially slow the progression of the disease.

Learn more about why detecting Alzheimer’s early is important and about the technologies that are changing the future of disease research.

Detecting Alzheimer’s

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, early detection of cognitive impairment offers a wide range of benefits for people with the disease, their caregivers, families and their team of doctors.

Benefits include:

  • A better, clearer report of symptoms
  • A greater ability to participate in clinical trials that fight Alzheimer’s
  • More choice of medications that can improve symptoms
  • More time for family and loved ones to understand the disease and plan the future
  • More time to plan for the future and understand care options

Many people shy away from an early diagnosis because Alzheimer’s is not treatable. While understandable, early detection can help mitigate feelings of guilt and stress and allow families time to process the diagnosis and plan.

Emerging Alzheimer’s Technology

Now, due to developing technology, Alzheimer’s is being diagnosed earlier than ever.

Faculty chair and physician-scientist for the Medicine and Exponential Medicine program at Singularity University, Dr. Daniel Kraft, presented on early-detection technology at the Exponential Finance conference in New York City, calling for new tools to keep up with what he called an “avalanche of data.” He touched on a number of new technologies including new blood tests, brain scans and eye tests.

1. Blood tests.

Advances in blood-based biomarkers have made it possible to predict Alzheimer’s before it begins, using a simple blood test. One promising test may be able to predict Alzheimer’s with 100% accuracy a full decade before symptoms occur. A recent study involving an international team of researchers tested for changes in levels of the neurofilament light chain (NfL) protein. This type of protein in the blood is a strong sign that brain damage has occurred because it normally lives inside neurons but when they become damaged or die, they break into the surrounding cerebrospinal fluid and then travel into the bloodstream. A blood test would reveal the presence of this protein and could suggest early stages of the disease.

2. Brain scans.

New brain scans are enabling doctors to see inside the brains of people at high risk for Alzheimer’s before clinical symptoms develop.  One type of scan uses MRI technology to find beta-amyloid, thought to cause Alzheimer’s. This scan has been shown to detect Alzheimer’s with 90% accuracy before symptoms occur.

3. Eye tests.

Another way researchers are examining early Alzheimer’s detection is through the size of blood vessels in the eye. Researchers at Duke University found that the different sizes of blood vessels in the eye may actually predict Alzheimer’s before symptoms, allowing people with the disease to receive care before irreversible brain damage occurs. Two more recent studies also found that the small blood vessels in the retina at the back of the eye are altered for people with Alzheimer’s and have a non-invasive imaging device to detect these changes. The imaging, called optical coherence tomography angiography (OCTA), can detect these changes before symptoms occur and can even suggest what stage of dementia that person is in.

Genetic Testing for Alzheimer’s

Another way researchers are using technology to identify those at risk for Alzheimer’s is through genetic testing. Researchers have identified genes that increase the risk of an individual developing Alzheimer’s. The strongest risk gene for Alzheimer’s is APOE-e4. There is a blood test for this gene and it is usually used in clinical trials to identify participants who are at a higher risk for the disease. Carrying the APOE-e4 gene does not mean someone has Alzheimer’s. It does, however, mean they are at a higher risk for eventually developing the disease.

Genetic testing is also available for deterministic genes that cause “familial Alzheimer’s,” a rare form of the disease that can begin as early as age 30 and accounts for less than 1% of all dementia cases.

Genetic testing is controversial and should only be conducted with the oversight of a trusted genetic counselor or medical professional.

What do you think about the latest technology for detecting Alzheimer’s? We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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