"Right now we have to wait until people have symptoms before they can diagnose the disease," says Dr. Norman Relkin of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. "Ideally, what we would like to be able to do is identify the disease before effectively it even starts."
Relkin says protein patterns found in spinal fluid may help detect Alzheimer's. Currently, the disease can only be confirmed with a brain autopsy.
In a study out today in the "Annals of Neurology," Relkin reports that finding these patterns — or biomarkers — is like finding a fingerprint for the disease. It's an important step forward in understanding this devastating disease and how it develops. But the test is not yet ready for clinical use.
The test is "a little over 90 percent" accurate, Relkin says.
Scientists believe a build-up of abnormal proteins in and around nerve cells is at the root of Alzheimer's disease. The theory is that proteins turn into larger plaques that jam communication between nerve cells and progressively kill them.
Relkin's spinal tap test is just one of several new ways of detecting Alzheimer's early.
"I don't like to lose my ability to remember things or do things right," Walter Kline, a 72-year old former computer systems manager.
Kline started having memory problems three years ago. His doctors began taking pictures of his brain with a PET scan and found he was losing brain cells over time. The diagnosis: Alzheimer's.
"To see someone that was your loved one to just become what I call a child, it hurts. It really does," says Peggy Kline, Walter's wife.
But because the disease was caught early, Walter began medication — including Namenda and Razadyne — to relieve the symptoms, even though the disease remains incurable.
"We were able to catch Alzheimer's at the first signs and get him started on treatment, and we feel we have stabilized the disease a little bit better than we would have had we not caught it early," says Dr. Murali Doraiswamy of Duke Medical Center.
But is knowing you have a disease before you have the symptoms always good? If there is a disease for which there is no cure and it is a degenerative disease that leaves you in bad shape, do you want to know?
"We have done a study which has shown individuals who have family members with Alzheimer's disease do want to know," Relkin says. "And getting this information about the future risk, even through they find out they have a gene that promotes the illness, is still a relief because it takes away some of the uncertainty."