Blood tests may be able to predict the pace of Alzheimer’s disease progression, according to a new study.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University reported they may be able to predict how quickly patients with Alzheimer’s will lose cognitive function by looking at levels of certain fats in the blood.
The finding could provide useful information to families and caregivers and may also suggest treatment targets for the neurodegenerative disorder.
Past research has shown that cognitive function declines at different rates in Alzheimer’s patients. One-third of patients do not decline at all in five years time, another third decline at a moderate rate, and the remaining patients decline relatively quickly.
For the current study, researchers analyzed data from 120 probable Alzheimer’s patients at the Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. They measured a variety of fats in the patients' blood and conducted multiple cognitive assessments over a period of two years.
The results indicated that the higher the level of plasma sphingomyelins and the lower the level of ceramides- two types of fat found in cells throughout the body, the slower the progression of the dementia of Alzheimer's disease.
Accurately predicting the pace of decline could help patients and caregivers better prepare and help doctors aggressively target the patients for whom the onset of dementia is likely to be accelerated.
However, there are currently no predictably effective treatments to delay or prevent Alzheimer’s, and the researchers warn that more studies need to be done to confirm the reliability of the blood-fat test.
"We're confident there's a relationship between these lipids and Alzheimer’s disease progression, but this work is not yet ready to be used clinically," said Michelle Mielke, adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Though the link is not well understood yet, scientists do know that ceramides are involved in inflammation and cell death. Meanwhile, an enzyme called sphingomyelinase is responsible for metabolizing sphingomyelins into ceraminds.
The researchers speculate that inhibiting the enzyme could be used to slow down the process of breaking down sphingomyelins into ceramides, thereby slowing the rate of cell death and maybe even halting the progression of the disease.
"None of the other compounds in clinical trials to date are showing any benefits," Mielke said. "Perhaps we need to shift our focus. The answers could be in these lipids, which can be measured in the blood."