Jan. 22 (UPI) -- A blood test can pick up signs of Alzheimer's disease in patients years before any symptoms show up, a new study says.
Researchers were able to detect cognitive symptoms in study participants 16 years before symptoms appear, according to a study published Monday in Nature Medicine.
"This is something that would be easy to incorporate into a screening test in a neurology clinic," Brian Gordon, an assistant professor of radiology at Washington University's Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, said in a news release. "We validated it in people with Alzheimer's disease because we know their brains undergo lots of neurodegeneration, but this marker isn't specific for Alzheimer's. High levels could be a sign of many different neurological diseases and injuries."
The researchers performed brain scans and two cognitive tests on participants. They discovered a higher risk of showing signs of brain atrophy in participants whose neurofilament light blood protein levels had risen quickly in the past compared to healthy participants with steady levels of blood protein.
The protein can leak into the bloodstream of people who suffer neurological damage, like football players who take hits to the head and people with multiple sclerosis.
People with Lewy body dementia and Huntington's disease tend to have high levels of the protein in the blood.
"Sixteen years before symptoms arise is really quite early in the disease process, but we were able to see differences even then," said Stephanie Schultz, a researcher at Washington University. "This could be a good preclinical biomarker to identify those who will go on to develop clinical symptoms."
By 2060, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 14 million people will develop Alzheimer's.
"I could see this being used in the clinic in a few years to identify signs of brain damage in individual patients," Gordon said. "We're not at the point we can tell people, 'In five years you'll have dementia.' We are all working towards that."