Scientists make breakthrough in early detection of Alzheimer’s disease

Scientists may have discovered a new diagnostic tool to detect early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, offering hope for future early detection.

Alzheimer’s affects approximately 5.8 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The progressive disease is the most common form of dementia and is associated with memory loss and cognitive decline in regions of the brain involved in thinking, memory and language.

Scientists believe that Alzheimer’s is caused by the abnormal buildup of proteins in and around brain cells. However, the exact trigger is still unclear.

To date, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s. However, new medications can provide patients with relief and slow the development of symptoms, especially if diagnosed early.

Dementia patient
Stock image of a woman hugging her elderly mother. The CDC estimates that Alzheimer’s disease affects approximately 5.8 million Americans.

“The disease begins to develop 20 years before the onset of symptoms, so it is important to detect it early – especially with delaying drugs coming onto the market,” Per Nilsson, one of the study authors, said in a statement. Nilsson is an associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Nursing Sciences and Society at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

In 2022, scientists developed a simple blood test that can detect abnormally folded proteins and therefore the early signs of Alzheimer’s before the symptoms of the disease manifest themselves.

However, in the latest study published in the journal Molecular PsychiatryNilsson and his team discovered a hallmark of the disease that may enable even earlier diagnostic testing: an increase in metabolism in the brain’s hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and learning.

“Interestingly, changes in metabolism can be observed before the characteristic insoluble plaques have accumulated in the brain,” Maria Ankarcrona, professor and co-author of the study, said in a statement.

“The different energy balance is consistent with what we saw in images of the Alzheimer’s brain, but we have now discovered these changes at an earlier stage.”

To analyze these metabolic changes, the team examined cells in the hippocampus of mice at different stages of Alzheimer’s progression. One of the changes they observed was an increase in metabolism in the mitochondria, the cell’s energy-producing powerhouses.

This metabolic increase was accompanied by a disruption in the mice’s cellular recycling systems, causing packets of damaged proteins to accumulate at the connections between nerve cells in the brain.

“These results highlight the importance of maintaining functional mitochondria and normal protein metabolism,” said Nilsson. “In the future, we may conduct tests in mice to see whether new molecules that stabilize mitochondrial and autophagic (cellular recycling) function can delay the disease.”