Detecting Alzheimer’s disease before a patient shows symptoms may only be a few years away, thanks to work being done by Dr. Larry Sparks at the Banner Sun Health Research Institute.
A study by Sparks and other researchers at BSHRI suggests that plasma levels of tau, a protein formed in the brain, appears to be a biomarker and a strong predictor for Alzheimer’s disease.
“The only people that are going to benefit from this are the people that need it the most,” Sparks said.
The study is published in the June edition of American Journal of Neurodegenerative Disease, and Sparks said his study is the first time anyone has been able to measure tau. He has been waiting about three years for his work to be published and was told by other scientists in the community that they didn’t believe he had done it, since they had been working for years to do the same thing.
“I’ve been told that this could be a landmark paper,” Sparks said, adding he hopes it will make a difference for patients. “I think we hit something big here.”
Sparks and other researchers measured tau levels in human plasma and found “significant differences” between cognitively normal individuals and those with either mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. Significantly, Sparks and his team found that the levels of tau were significantly lower in plasma measured in those with diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with no sign of cognitive decline.
Sparks said in patients with cognitive impairments, the tau gets caught in the brain, reducing the amount in blood.
Sparks said there is a 15-20 percent decrease in tau in the blood for people with mild cognitive impairments, and all those people could go on to develop Alzheimer’s, with their tau levels decreasing further. The BSHRI team found the levels of tau in cognitively normal adults and seniors was nearly three times greater than those with some levels of cognitive impairment.
“It’s like a marker,” Sparks said, explaining as tau levels go down in the blood, it is most likely increasing in the brain. “It looks like there’s a clear correlation of a reduction of cognitive levels and levels of tau in the blood.”
BSHRI is doing an ongoing study to follow individuals and their tau levels, monitoring changes over time, he said.
In the future, Sparks said, doctors may be able to use the study to tell patients they may be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s down the road.
“That’s the next step,” he said. “I think we found the smoking gun. We don’t know who pulled the trigger or how to stop it.”
Testing for Alzheimer’s with tau could be as routine as getting a cholesterol checkup, Sparks said, but that is several years down the road, and the real advancement could be that the test is as simple as taking blood, rather than performing a much more invasive spinal tap to test brain fluid for tau levels.
Doctors and researchers could also use the tau test to easily follow patients on medications to see if tau levels are affected, Sparks said.
“It could become a very viable and widespread marker,” he said.