FILE - One hemisphere of a healthy brain (L) is pictured next to one hemisphere of a brain of a person suffering from Alzheimer disease.
FILE - One hemisphere of a healthy brain (L) is pictured next to one hemisphere of a brain of a person suffering from Alzheimer disease.

University researchers in the United States say they have developed a blood test that appears to be effective in detecting the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia in elderly people.

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Scientists at Rowan University in the eastern state of New Jersey say their blood test can detect mild cognitive impairment, which is generally seen in patients 10 or more years before they develop severe symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease, an affliction that is almost always fatal.

Not everyone with mild cognitive impairment develops Alzheimer's, and the condition known as MCI can be caused by a wide variety of causes, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's Disease, vascular problems, depression and traumatic brain injury. The Rowan researchers, writing in a journal of the Alzheimer's Association, say their blood test can distinguish between the various forms of cognitive impairment and identify with nearly 100 percent accuracy those that will most likely progress to advanced Alzheimer'.

The small-scale study conducted at Rowan, in Glassboro, New Jersey, tested the blood of 236 subjects, 50 of whom had MCI.

“Our results show that it is possible to use a small number of blood-borne autoantibodies to accurately diagnose early-stage Alzheimer’s,” said Cassandra DeMarshall, the study's lead author and a doctoral candidate at the public university. “These findings could eventually lead to the development of a simple, inexpensive and relatively noninvasive way to diagnose this devastating disease in its earliest stages.”

The original proof-of-concept study would need to be repeated on a larger scale, experts said, but if the original findings are confirmed, patients suffering from mild cognitive impairment could seek appropriate early treatment, including lifestyle changes. This could also ease the significant financial and psychological cost for family members responsible for caring for elderly Alzheimer's patients.

DeMarshall said about 60 percent of the patients her team studied had MCI caused by an early stage of Alzheimer's Disease, so "to provide proper care, physicians need to know which cases of MCI are due to early Alzheimer’s and which are not.”

Dr. Robert Nagele, the research team leader, said the results now being reported were particularly important because pre-Alzheimer's changes in the brain begin "at least a decade before the emergence of telltale symptoms.”

“To the best of our knowledge," Naegele said, "this is the first blood test using autoantibody biomarkers that can accurately detect Alzheimer’s at an early point in the course of the disease when treatments are more likely to be beneficial – that is, before too much brain devastation has occurred”

Nagele is director of the Biomarker Discovery Center at Rowan’s New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging, and the co-founder and chief scientific officer of Durin Technologies Inc. His team's research is to be published in a forthcoming issue of Alzheimer's & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring.