Proteins May Predict Dementia 10 Years Before it Develops

Scientists found that the presence of specific proteins in the blood could indicate whether a person may be more likely to develop dementia long before they experience symptoms.

In a new study published February 12 in the journal Nature Aging, researchers examined plasma proteins in blood samples from 52,645 adults from the UK Biobank. The samples were obtained between 2006 and 2010, and no participants had a dementia diagnosis at the time of collection.

When the scientists analyzed blood plasma proteins, they identified 1,463 linked with dementia. They also found proteins called GFAP, NEFL, GDF15, and LTBP2 were most associated with dementia from all causes.

The team followed the Biobank participants for just over 14 years and found that 1,417 eventually developed some form of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease or vascular dementia.

After analyzing the plasma protein data and incidences of dementia, the scientists discovered that participants who had higher levels of GFAP, NEFL, GDF15, and LTBP2 proteins when they submitted blood samples for the Biobank were more likely to develop some form of dementia than those with lower levels.

What's more, individuals with higher GFAP levels were over two times more likely to develop Alzheimer's, vascular dementia, or incident all-cause dementia.

The data showed that proteins GFAP and LTBP2 were highly definitive for predicting dementia, and GFAP and NEFL began to change at least 10 years before the participant received a dementia diagnosis.

"Our findings strongly highlight GFAP as an optimal biomarker for dementia prediction, even more than 10 years before the diagnosis, with implications for screening people at high risk for dementia and for early intervention," the study's authors wrote.

In a Science Media Centre press release, Dr. Sheona Scales, Director of Research at Alzheimer's Research UK, who was not involved in the study, says this new research adds to the growing body of evidence that measuring levels of specific proteins in the blood of healthy people could accurately predict dementia before symptoms develop.

"Further studies, including in more diverse populations, are needed to verify these tests and predictive models," Scales says. "And, even when tests show promise in studies like this, they still need to go through regulatory approval before they can be used in a healthcare setting."

According to a Reuters report, study author Jian-Feng Feng from Fudan University, Shanghai, China, says that he is currently engaged in discussions about the potential commercial development of a blood test based on this study's findings.

Are tests available that can predict dementia?

Currently, no test can confidently predict whether a person will develop dementia. However, a test marketed under the brand name Precivity AD has shown promise in detecting early signs of Alzheimer's and may be helpful in identifying whether people without cognitive impairments may be at risk for dementia.

Moreover, 2023 research found that a two-part memory test could identify whether a person with no memory problems will likely develop cognitive impairments in the future.

Reports also suggest that specific biomarkers may predict whether an individual is at risk for Alzheimer's disease.

However, if a reliable and accurate test to predict Alzheimer's or other types of dementia does become available, it's unclear what a person could do with that information.

For example, treatments for dementia, including drugs like galantamine, rivastigmine, and donepezil, and experimental medications such as donanemab, may help control mild to moderate Alzheimer's symptoms.

However, since none of these treatments prevent the disease, people who find out they are at high risk for dementia may not have viable prevention options other than lifestyle changes and dietary interventions.

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