Feature Stories

Testing for Alzheimer’s

Researchers have revealed a direct relationship between two specific antibodies and the severity of Alzheimer's disease symptoms, raising hopes that a diagnostic blood test for the devastating disorder is within reach.

Researchers from the University of Georgia, the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta and the Medical College of Georgia compared antibody levels in blood samples from 118 older adults with the participant's level of dementia. The team, whose results appear in the current edition of Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, found that the concentration of two specific proteins that are involved in the immune response increases as the severity of dementia increases.

"We found a strong and consistent relationship between two particular antibodies and the level of impairment," said study co-author L. Stephen Miller, professor and director of clinical psychology training in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "The finding brings us closer to our ultimate goal of developing a blood test that can diagnose Alzheimer's disease or potentially identify if someone is at higher risk for the disease."

Miller's co-authors include Jennifer S. Wilson, a former undergraduate student in the UGA Honors program who is now pursing graduate studies at Emory University; Shyamala Mruthinti, research pharmacologist at the VA Medical Center and adjunct professor at MCG; and Jerry Buccafusco, director of the MCG Alzheimer's Research Center. The team focused on antibodies that the body creates in response to two proteins that are associated with Alzheimer's disease. One protein, known as amyloid-beta, forms the plaques that are evident in the brains of people with Alzheimer's upon autopsy. The other protein, known as RAGE, is involved in the normal aging process but is expressed at higher levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer's.

In a previous study that compared a group of people with Alzheimer's disease to a healthy control group, Mruthinti and her colleagues found that anti-amyloid beta and anti-RAGE antibodies are significantly higher in the group with Alzheimer's. The team's latest study expands on that finding to reveal a direct relationship between severity of Alzheimer's disease and levels of the two antibodies in the blood.

"Alzheimer's is an inflammatory disease of the brain, and these two antibodies give us a way to measure that inflammation," Mruthinti said. "Using them as an early diagnostic marker may allow us to start drug treatment early, when it's most effective, to increase the patient's quality of life."

While optimistic about their findings, the researchers caution that it could still be years before a diagnostic test based on their work is clinically available. The study found that the relationship between the two antibodies and Alzheimer's severity persists even after controlling for patient age and total antibody levels. To further test the strength of the relationship, the researchers are now working with a sample that controls for other factors that have the potential to influence levels of the two antibodies, such as diabetes and heart disease. Buccafusco and his colleagues are also working to decrease the cost and time involved in the test.

Published Saturday,