Alzheimer’s disease is an excruciatingly difficult condition for both an individual and their family. The condition can lead to cognitive decline and memory issues, but like many conditions, the earlier intervention begins, the more successful treatment tends to be. However, one issue with Alzheimer’s is that it’s tough to diagnose in its early stages. But a breakthrough study involving the spine could change how we treat this difficult brain condition.
According to researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, analyzing cerebrospinal fluid could help medical experts identify Alzheimer’s disease in the asymptomatic stage. They did this by looking for the presence of a certain protein that is present in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s first begins in an individual when a brain protein called amyloid leads to the development of plaque in the brain. During this development, people rarely show signs of cognitive decline. However, when the protein eventually starts to spread in the neurons, people start to begin experiencing confusion and memory loss.
This brain plaque can be detected using sophisticated technology, but the tests are expensive and time consuming. Because of this, researchers wanted to examine other areas of the body for biomarkers that could indicate the individual was in this asymptomatic stage of Alzheimer’s. They decided to look at cerebrospinal fluid, which bathes the brain and could help showcase the presence of this protein.
They began by analyzing the cerebrospinal fluid of 100 people in their 70s with varying degrees of cognitive impairment. What they found was that levels of a specific form of protein were elevated in people with Alzheimer’s, and that levels were increased the more advanced a person’s dementia and cognitive impairment was. They then cross-referenced their findings with the gold-standard brain scan for revealing tau protein presence, and the study’s findings were highly correlated with the scan’s findings.
“This could be a way for us to not only diagnose Alzheimer’s disease but tell where people are in the disease,” said study first author Kanta Horie, Ph. D.
Study senior author Randall J. Bateman, MD, added that this testing procedure could help patients get treatment sooner, which in turn can limit the damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
“If we can translate this into the clinic, we’d have a way of knowing whether a person’s symptoms are due to tau pathology in Alzheimer’s disease and where they are in the disease course, without needing to do a brain scan. As a physician, this information is invaluable in informing patient care, and in the future, to guide treatment decisions,” said Bateman.
Hopefully in the not-so-distant future we’ll be able to draw a small sample of fluid from the spinal canal and assess a person’s Alzheimer’s risk and the best way to treat them. This could radically improve patient care for this complex and challenging condition.