A new biomarker found in spinal fluid may help physicians detect Alzheimer’s disease years before any symptoms appear, providing new hope for patients and drug developers.

Previous research has linked so-called amyloid plaques to Alzheimer’s progression. But the new findings suggest that the neurodegenerative disease is actually caused by their precursors — a group of molecules called Aβ oligomers. “This is the key molecule and could be the best, most reliable way to make an early diagnosis,” Dr. Claudio Soto, a researcher at the University of Texas Medical School and senior author of the new study, said in a press release.

“That's been the biggest problem in the field: you can't identify patients until they are already sick," he continued. "Those Aβ oligomers may be circulating in the body years if not decades before cognitive symptoms arise.”

The study, which is published in the journal Cell Reports, shows that an innovative amplification technique called protein misfolding cyclic amplification (PMCA) may allow researchers and doctors to detect these molecules at very low concentrations. In an experiment with cerebrospinal fluid samples from patients with Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders, they were able to distinguish between samples with 90 percent sensitivity and 92 percent specificity.

Searching for a Cure

According to the National Institutes of Health, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s currently affect millions of people worldwide. The conditions, which are characterized by a gradual loss of nerve functions, usually result in mental decline and an array of cognitive impairments. In turn, these symptoms often bring with them a number of lifestyle changes as well as an increased risk of injuries.

While there is currently no way to reverse or even stop the progression of Alzheimer’s, the new findings provide a new, promising platform for researchers. “It is widely believed that a large part of the failures in many recent clinical trials is due to the lack of an early detection of patients before substantial brain damage has already occurred,” Soto wrote in an email to Medical Daily.

“The brain is a tissue with low regeneration capacity, so it is possible that when patients exhibit the clinical symptoms of the disease, many of the potential treatments will not produce benefit, not because they are not good, but because it might be too late for brain recovery,” he added. “This is the main benefit of having an early detection procedure.”

Source: Salvadores N, Shahnawaz M, Scarpini E, Tagliavini F, Soto C. Detection of Misfolded Aβ Oligomers for Sensitive Biochemical Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. Cell Reports. 2014.