New tests may predict Alzheimer's disease

June 30, 2010 3:08:44 PM PDT
Alzheimer's is a progressive brain disease that often causes death. Now, new tests are designed to predict whether a person will develop Alzheimer's.

A test is used to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. It's a simple memory exam, part of a battery of questions that form a pen and paper test for people with mild memory problems. One sample activity is taking a paper in your right hand, folding it, and putting it on the floor.

Mary Brown is a former New York University nurse. She goes to the Pearl Barlow Center for Memory because she has a mild form of Alzheimer's.

"I'll put something down and go thru the whole house looking for it, and by the time I get tired, I'll come back to the original spot, and there it will be waiting for me." Brown said.

The pen and paper test, combined with a PET scan to detect brain cell activity, were reported in Wednesday's issue of the Journal Neurology as the first way ever to predict Alzheimer's.

"If you have abnormalities in both of these tests, you have a twelve times increased risk of developing Alzheimer's," said Dr. James Galvin of NYU's Langone Medical Center.

A gene test and one for certain chemicals in spinal fluid were not predictive, according to the study.

One criticism of the study is that there were a relatively small number of people with mild memory problems who had taken all the multiple Alzheimer's tests.

Dr. Galvin says larger studies must be done to replicate the results of today's report. In the meantime, he says there are ways other than an expensive PET scan for doctors to be certain that a patient has Alzheimer's. However, the study results may help with early cases of the illness.

The cost of the PET scan alone may be enough to prevent the test combination from being used routinely in general practice, as mentioned in an editorial in the Journal.

The test combination may also be used to find at risk patients and to test drugs designed to slow Alzheimer's progression.