Warning test for Alzheimer's

by JAMES CHAPMAN, Daily Mail

Scientists have developed an early-warning test for Alzheimer's in a major breakthrough in the fight against the disease.

Testing a sample of spinal fluid could detect the first signs of the illness years before symptoms appear, say experts.

This could allow treatment with existing drugs known to help slow the progression of the disease in some patients.

An early-warning test represents the most important advance for years in the Alzheimer's battle.

The experimental test has shown a high level of accuracy in an initial study, raising hopes that it could soon offer a much better way of detecting the disease.

'If we can diagnose patients earlier, we could provide them with medications to help minimise their symptoms,' said Dr Odile Carrette, of Geneva University Hospital, in Switzerland, who pioneered the test. People could also be told to modify their lifestyles. Smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise have all been linked to increased progression of Alzheimer's.

In the study, Dr Carrette and colleagues carried out ' blind' tests on spinal fluid taken from 20 volunteer patients. Ten had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, while the other ten were healthy.

Using a testing technique that can identify clusters of proteins in the fluid samples, the scientists found that as many as 17 proteins appeared in either higher or lower levels in the Alzheimer's patients than in the others.

Two key markers of the disease were proteins called cystatin C and beta 2 microglobulin, which the researchers had previously linked with Alzheimer's.

Based on the protein levels, researchers correctly identified the illness in nine of the ten patients previously diagnosed with the disease, and ruled it out in the other ten. The more protein markers the volunteers had, the more likely they were to have Alzheimer's, Dr Carrette told the annual meeting of the Federation for American Societies of Experimental Biology in San Diego, California.

She said it would take several years of further research before the test could become widely available.

But scientists plan to see if the key

proteins are also present in the blood, which could lead to a more simple test. Other research scientists are working on ways to detect early signs of Alzheimer's. One possibility is taking scans of the brain.

U.S. researchers suggest that a key region of the brain starts to change in people who go on to develop Alzheimer's decades later.

Several medical teams are also working on possible blood tests to screen for people at high risk.

Currently, the only way to definitively diagnose Alzheimer's is by examining a person's brain after their death.

Doctors have to diagnose the disease in living patients mainly by assessing symptoms such as memory loss and disorientation, but these can be mistaken for other forms of dementia.

Alzheimer's, which causes shrinkage of the brain, rarely occurs before the age of 60, but almost one in ten people over 65 is struck down - some 700,000 people in the UK.

Victims include novelist Iris Murdoch, who died three years ago, and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

New fear over link to aluminium in water

Experts say there is new evidence that aluminium in drinking water could be linked to Alzheimer's.

The theory had been largely discounted, but research suggests the disease is more common in regions where levels of aluminium in the water are highest.

Scientists said that when they tested the effects of one form of the metal on human cells it hastened cell death.

Researchers in California focused on monomeric aluminium, which they said was most easily absorbed by human cells.

Together with scientists from Turin they tested water in north-west Italy and found aluminium levels ranged from five to 1,220 micrograms per litre. Recommended levels are 200 micrograms.

Researchers found Alzheimer's was more common in areas with the highest levels of monomeric aluminium.

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