Researchers say it may soon be possible to scientifically diagnose Alzheimer's disease, without having to wait for autopsy confirmation after the patient has died. Clinical trials in the U.S. have confirmed the effectiveness of a skin test, which could help in early treatment and, perhaps one day, a cure.
A laboratory image clearly shows what are called "plaques and tangles" in the brain. They signal the buildup of a protein that eventually damages brain cells. Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disorder that gradually affects memory, comprehension, language and judgment. Five per cent of Alzheimer's patients inherit this condition through a familial gene. But for the vast majority of others, age is the common factor.
Dr. Daniel Alkon, with Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, says age is a factor. "The older we get, the more likely we are to get this disease."
Dr. Alkon has led research into an early diagnosis of Alzheimer's at the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute outside Washington, D.C. He helped develop a skin test that confirms the presence of an inflammatory signal in the body and the brain. "We can identify specific proteins in those skin cells, which have a different response in Alzheimer's patients," he says.
Alzheimer's is not the only disease that results in memory loss. But it is the only form of dementia that carries no other physical symptom. Daniel Alkon says that may be why doctors find it such a difficult condition to diagnose early. The more advanced the disease, the easier the diagnosis, and unfortunately, the less likelihood treatment can do much good.
Preventive measures such as vigorous exercise for the body and the brain suggest that older people can perhaps avoid or postpone Alzheimer's. It's believed that by keeping in shape physically and mentally, blood function is boosted in parts of the brain used for memory. But as the post-World War Two generation ages, there is greater pressure for a cure.
Dr. Alkon sees potential in a drug called Bryostatin, which has been used in cancer research. "To our knowledge, this is one of the first drugs that has real potential for doing what I just mentioned, which is to treat both the symptoms and the underlying neuro-degeneration."
Government approval of this drug or a possible vaccine will take time. For now, Dr. Alkon says he believes the sooner the skin test is available, the better the chance of early treatment. "That would be marvelous because then we could get a head start in preventing the disease."