Alzheimer's is an incurable deterioration of the brain, ending in dementia and death. It affects tens of millions of people around the world, and despite decades of research, there is not even a way to diagnose it properly.
Until now, that is.
A team led by Geert de Meyer of Ghent University in Belgium, with colleagues from the United States, claims it has discovered a reliable and relatively easily applied test that can predict the onset of Alzheimer's years before it becomes evident.
Their findings are published today in the American Medical Association journal "Archives of Neurology."
The article says that the researchers identified two particular proteins -- beta amyloid and tau -- which if measured in the spinal fluid successfully indicated the presence of Alzheimer's in 90 percent of a test group of patients.
One of these proteins -- beta amyloid -- is associated with the typical tangles that form in the brain of an Alzheimer's sufferer, the other with the collection of dead cells in the brain.
Further, the researchers say they say they can identify with 100 percent accuracy those people with present memory impairment who will go on to develop Alzheimer's in the following five years.
"The New York Times," in an article on the research work, quotes Steven DeKosky, dean of the University of Virginia Medical School, as saying, "This is what everybody is looking for, the bull's eye of perfect predictive accuracy."
At present, only an autopsy after death can confirm that a patient actually had Alzheimer's.
There is currently no cure for the disease, and the value of the Belgian-led research is that it identifies culprits which can now be singled out for attention by drug makers. In other words, stopping the proteins could stop the disease.
But the research findings cannot be taken as finalized until key questions are answered, like whether the results produced under clinical conditions stand up to everyday conditions in hospitals and doctors' offices.
And the medical milieu foresees ethical problems emerging from the apparent ability of this research to predict developments so far in the future.
The question is whether doctors should inform patients that they fit the profile of those who are certain to develop Alzheimer's at a future date. Most voices say that should be a matter between the individual doctor and patient.
written by Breffni O'Rourke, with agency reports