Research Targets Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s

Last week, Laurel Beckett of UC-Davis was just back from Honolulu, where she had been presenting her work at the annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease. It created quite a buzz in that segment of the research world.

“We have not had a lot of success in treatment, and usually by the time doctors have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, there’s already a lot of damage to the brain,” Beckett said, adding, “Anytime we can move the time of diagnosis up, that gives researchers and physicians a better chance to treat it.”

Therefore, one of the goals of research has been to diagnose Alzheimer’s at a much earlier stage.

That’s one reason for the founding of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative — a national consortium of foundations, hospitals and research institutions, including UC-San Francisco and the National Institute on Aging, that is collectively studying a pool of patients in various stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Ironically, it was the control “normal” group of 100 patients that provided a breakthrough, Beckett said. Her team screened the normal patients for 11 different biomarkers and found unexpected combinations of them in 10% of those patients. They analyzed data over the next three years and found that the segment of the group that lit up with a combination of biomarkers showed a greater decline in cognitive function tests, one early sign of Alzheimer’s.

“We were looking for patterns or clusters. It’s sort of on the theory that if you look in the sky and see patterns of constellations, but if you map it in three dimensions, you see that they’re actually far apart. But that there are other clusters or patterns you couldn’t see before. So in this case, we’re looking at 11 dimensions, mathematically, to see if there were clusters or patterns. And they formed a little ball, a little cluster, mathematically.”

The research — looking for biomarker patterns in normal patients — was the idea of Beckett’s graduate student, Jasmine Nettiksimmons. The results were published in the August issue of the journal Neurobiology of Aging. 

“We didn’t look at cognitive functions to identify [the subjects], we looked at it afterward,” Beckett said. “It was far more than change alone. They were declining over three-year period afterward.”

Finding 10 patients out of 100 is not a big sample size, Beckett said. The next step is to do more work to replicate those findings.

“It was a group that kind of stood out, Beckett said, adding, “With cognitive function, there is always variation, but on average, their performance over the next three years was markedly different, several points a year difference. It’s not like they suddenly got Alzheimer’s, but in this [research] world, those differences are quite a bit larger than if you picked people at random.”

Beckett is quick to qualify, quick to say that there is no immediate commercial or practical result from this breakthrough.

“This is a very promising, potential insight into what’s going on,” she said. “It’s the beginning of something that could be really big. If we can figure out what we should be looking at, then ideally, you could see Alzheimer’s disease long before dementia.”

In the future, she hopes that people will be screened for Alzheimer’s the same way they’re now screened for colorectal cancer and that there will be some kind of medication for it, the way medication is given for high cholesterol.

“That’s the ideal vision. We’re certainly not anywhere near that, but we would like to see that come true, that vision. I’m really excited by it.”

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