Alzheimer’s ‘breakthrough': What you need to know

This story has been sweeping the news today so I thought this was a good opportunity to make a few points and break our recent silence.

Alzheimer’s: A growing concern

This is a really exciting paper and for those who have not already read about it I will briefly sum up the key points. Alzheimer’s disease is a horrendous condition mostly affecting older individuals and characterised by devastating memory loss and a quite astonishing shrinkage in brain tissue (known as atrophy, shown below).

Recently there has been a huge investment into Alzheimer’s research and one of the major reasons for this is that we are an ageing population, in other words we are very good at keeping people alive for longer. This is coming at the cost of quality of life, in the case of late-stage Alzheimer’s patients any use of the term ‘quality’ is highly questionable.

Interestingly unlike a number of diseases we know rather a lot about what happens in Alzheimer’s, it is known that build up things called amyloid beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are heavily involved in the disorder. So why is this still such a huge problem? Well this is primarily due to the fact that we can only diagnose Alzheimer’s patients once memory defects start to kick in and by this time the atrophy has begun and any hope of prevention is too late. It is for that reason that while there is a huge need for effective Alzheimer’s drugs an almost more important requirement is a diagnostic tool so we can catch the disorder early. This leads us nicely to the mentioned paper.

New ‘breakthrough’

The paper (Hye et al., 2014), published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, involves a large study including people with Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and elderly healthy controls. The group found that levels of 10 proteins in the blood of these patients could predict with 87% accuracy the progression from MCI to Alzheimer’s. For more information regarding the study I recommend the article published in New Scientist , I have read a number of articles covering the news and found this by far the most informative.

This is most certainly a great piece of research however even the author’s themselves stress we are a long way from anything truly ground-breaking. First, there need to be a number of follow-up studies conducted to confirm the association and potentially refine the group of proteins being tested. This is in no way the first study claiming to have found a marker for Alzheimer’s (tests of blood, cerebrospinal fluid and brain scans have yielded promising results in the past) and I doubt it will be the last but it does seem the research is going the right way.

Another important point is that although 87% seems like a lot this is a case where that 13% chance of being wrong is very important. Telling someone they will develop Alzheimer’s will without doubt completely change their life and the way they go about it. Even if the a test can be developed as 100% accurate there’s currently little we can do about it so there would be huge ethical considerations to be made. On a side-note I think it is very important the reader is directed towards the original research paper. However knowledgeable they may be, we as scientists must push the concept of very reader questioning interpretation of research by showing the evidence, the BBC fail to do this with their coverage of this research.

 

Overall I think this represents an exciting prospect but am not entirely sure why it has been lauded so heavily by the press. This is just going to be one of things which is swiftly forgotten by the vast majority of people as the news moves on to bigger and more exciting things. I doubt anyone will remember a strikingly similar paper causing huge media furore or a paper I myself found particularly impressive with implications not just for Alzheimer’s but for most neurodegenerative diseases (including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s) which was hailed as “the turning point in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease”. In other words this paper is extremely exciting but the media is fickle and you feel one never truly knows why some papers make big waves and others don’t.

Written by Mike Daniels

Mike Daniels

I’m currently studying for a PhD in neuroinflammation at the the University of Manchester, UK. My work is based mainly on the role of a huge protein complex called the inflammasome in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, stroke and haemorrhagic fever.
When I’m not in the lab I’m usually found up a mountain or out in the countryside somewhere and am always on the lookout for any new science outreach ideas!

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