Can we detect Alzheimer's disease earlier?

Issue date: 19 October 2010


One key problem with treating people with Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the fact that it is often very difficult to detect the disease when it is in the early stages of progression.

A team of researchers from the University of the West of England are about to embark on a preliminary study to investigate the efficacy of combining biomarkers in blood with cognitive testing as a way of screening for AD early on so that appropriate treatments can be offered to patients sooner.

The team brings together experts in biomedicine and psychology who will see if they can set about devising tests that marry biomarkers with cognitive performance tests.

Dr Myra Conway, a biochemist and Senior Lecturer at UWE, is working alongside Dr Kris Kinsey, a psychologist with expertise in visual attention and object recognition and Dr Gary Christopher, a psychologist with expertise in attentional and memory impairments in clinical conditions.

The bringing together of these two quite separate disciplines will enable the researchers to ascertain if by matching blood analysis using markers with cognitive testing it might be possible to devise a new set of diagnostic tests.

Dr Kinsey explains, “Current methods of diagnosing AD measure cognitive decrements that occur late in the disease when treatment options are limited. Some methods have improved but tend to be either costly or risky to health. For example the invasiveness of taking cerebral spinal fluid to test for AD is not without safety implications and is also a really expensive test.”

Dr Myra Conway has already made some analysis of post mortem AD brain tissue where she has detected anomalies in protein characteristics. Dr Conway explains, “We aim to take this earlier project forward by working with people who may be in the early stages of AD. This is being coordinated through Bristol Dementia Research Group and North Bristol NHS Trust.

“If we can detect the same anomalies in blood samples from people who are suspected of being in the early stages of AD then we can combine blood testing with cognitive testing and work towards creating an earlier screening test.”

Dr Gary Christopher proposes, “There are many benefits that may be derived if we can succeed in developing such a test, not least in terms of the early diagnosis of the disease, but also in terms of reducing stress experienced by patients during the assessment process. Our growing relationship with the Dementia Research Group, the North Bristol NHS Trust and the BRACE Centre will prove pivotal to the successful completion of this project.”

The research will also draw on mentoring expertise from UWE's Professor Nichola Rumsey (Psychology) and Dr Amanda Longley (Health and Life Sciences). Participants will be recruited by Dr Judy Haworth, a psychiatrist in the North Bristol NHS Trust.

Dr Gary Christopher and Dr Kris Kinsey have recently received an Early Career Researcher Grant from UWE, one of 20 grants funded by the University to fund pilot studies in areas of research that are of national significance and likely to attract future funding.

The project builds on a growing area of research for UWE and follows a recent collaboration between Dr Conway and the BRACE Alzheimer's charity.

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