In the 20th century, as the overall life expectancy of people increased, more seniors were diagnosed with the dreaded Alzheimer's disease. By the year 1994, it had become a household name, which spurred the scientific community into looking for a cure. Medical experts believe that targeting the disease in its earlier stages, i.e. before any mental decline or brain damage occurs, can treat this condition to a great extent.
Unfortunately, at present, Alzheimer's is diagnosed by documenting the mental decline that is observed. This means that the patient will have gone through a significant amount of brain damage by this time. Researchers are trying to discover a method of detecting Alzheimer's before the severe symptoms are seen.
According to one of the newer breakthroughs in Alzheimer's testing, Biological Markers (or biomarkers) offer a promising future, as they are thought to be reliable indicators and predictors of a condition. Biomarkers may include genetic variations, protein in the blood/ spinal fluid and changes that occur in the brain, which can be easily detected through imaging tests. However, it is important to validate the value of a biomarker, after it has been tested on large groups of people, through multiple studies. For example, a high level of cholesterol has become a validated biomarker for heart diseases. A patient with high cholesterol will be asked to take the necessary precautions, even before he develops the symptoms of a heart disease.
While there are no validated biomarkers for Alzheimer's at present, researchers are currently testing potential possibilities like -
Neuro-imaging is one of the tops research areas for early detection of Alzheimer's. These tests rule out the possibility of other diseases that cause similar symptoms but require different treatment. Some of the imaging tests currently being explored include -
Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is the clear liquid that is found around the brain as well as in the spinal cord. An adult normally has about one pint of CSF, which can be derived through a process called Lumbar Puncturing. In the early stages, Alzheimer's alters the levels of tau and beta-amyloid present in the CSF.
The changes in the levels of tau and beta-amyloid in the blood, due to early Alzheimer's is being investigated. At the same time, scientists are also checking if this condition can trigger off any other detectable changes in the body. For example, the Alzheimer's Association has funded Dr. Lee Goldstein to check if beta-amyloid forms any characteristic deposits within the eye lens.
Scientists have found 3 genes that cause Alzheimer's, along with many other genes that could increase its risks. Researchers from all over the world are still trying to identify additional risk genes. In time, genetic risk profiling could be a valuable tool for assessing risks.
Certain studies point out that individuals suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's within a few years. Therefore, detecting MCI in time could help diagnose, treat and maybe even prevent Alzheimer's.
Unlike Alzheimer's patients, people suffering from MCI notice minor memory or mental function problems. These problems do not interfere with their daily activities, which is why not many people worry about it.
While some people with MCI have gone on to develop Alzheimer's, others haven't. In fact, at times, MCI may actually get better, with the help of simple lifestyle changes.
Therefore, a lot of research is required, before it can be determined if MCI is a good biomarker for Alzheimer's or not.
These biomarkers are all currently in the testing stage and it may be a while before scientists can zero in on the ones that definitely point towards Alzheimer's.