New research identifies blood biomarker for predicting dementia before symptoms develop

Researchers point to groundbreaking potential to screen for those at high risk of disease and for clinical trials of new treatments

New research from NUI Galway and Boston University has identified a blood biomarker. It could help identify people with the earliest signs of dementia, even before the onset of symptoms.

The study was published today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The researchers measured blood levels of P-tau181, a marker of neurodegeneration, in 52 cognitively healthy adults. From the US-based Framingham Heart Study, who later went on to have specialised brain PET scans. The blood samples were taken from people who had no cognitive symptoms and who had normal cognitive testing at the time of blood testing. 

The analysis found that elevated levels of P-tau181 in the blood were associated with greater accumulation of ß-amyloid, an abnormal protein in Alzheimer’s disease, on specialised brain scans. These scans were completed on average seven years after the blood test. 

Further analysis showed the biomarker P-tau181 outperformed two other biomarkers in predicting signs of ß-amyloid on brain scans.

Dr Emer McGrath is Associate Professor at the College of Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences at NUI Galway and Consultant Neurologist at Saolta University Health Care Group. She was lead author of the study.

“The results of this study are very promising. P-tau181 has the potential to help us identify individuals at high risk of dementia at a very early stage of the disease. This is before they develop memory difficulties or changes in behaviour,” Professor McGrath said.

The research team said the identification of a biomarker also points to the potential for a population screening programme. 

Professor McGrath said: “This study was carried out among people living in the community, reflecting those attending GP practices. A blood test measuring P-tau181 levels could potentially be used as a population-level screening tool for predicting risk of dementia in individuals at mid to late-life, or even earlier.

 “This research also has important potential implications in the context of clinical trials. Blood levels of P-tau181 could be used to identify suitable participants for further research. This is including in clinical trials of new therapies for dementia. We could use this biomarker to identify those at a high risk of developing dementia. This still at a very early stage in the disease. This is when there is still an opportunity to prevent the disease from progressing.”

The research was funded in Ireland by a Health Research Board Clinician Scientist Award. This is as well as an Alzheimer’s Association Clinician Scientist Fellowship in the US. The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute on Aging, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. 

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