Alzheimer’s disease is a growing problem especially with the Silver Tsunami or the graying of America.  The neurodegenerative disease that leads to brain cell degeneration and a decline in cognitive functions is estimated to kill a third of seniors and Alzheimer’s-related fatalities have increased nearly 150%.

Several of the world’s largest and most successful pharmaceutical companies have sought to tackle the disease. Researchers have focused on creating a drug that will effectively treat or cure Alzheimer’s when the disease has already manifested itself and progressed too far. However, new research suggests that preventative care may be best.  Changing how we interact with patients and detect traditional signs of the disease well before it takes hold may lead to early detection and create opportunities to develop new treatments or determine which drugs may help if given to patients earlier.

The prevailing theory behind the cause of Alzheimer’s has been the amyloid hypothesis, which asserts that the disease evolves from a build-up of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid in the brain. Researchers who subscribe to this theory believe that the disease ultimately stems from biological problems related to production, accumulation, or disposal of this protein.  But now the amyloid hypothesis has come under scrutiny and even abandoned by some researchers.

A team of researchers at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) led by neurologist Mathias Jucker found a link between the blood biomarker neurofilament light chain (Nf-L), a protein that collects in the body, and early signs of Alzheimer’s.  In the center’s study, Jucker and his colleagues detected increases in Nf-L 16 years before symptoms of Alzheimer’s were present in a cohort of patients with familial Alzheimer’s disease. Nf-L has already demonstrated success in facilitating the early detection and/or prognosis of a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Lewy body dementia.

While preliminary, the results mark a significant advance toward a blood test that could detect the disease well before symptoms. Early detection would completely change the equation for companies developing new therapies by enabling trials using drugs on early-stage disease when the drug has a better chance of being effective. This also gives patients more resources, including time, to make choices when it comes to treatment or preventative care.

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