To Bill Gates, the lack of a simple method of diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease is one of the principal factors cementing its place as the sixth leading cause of death in the US. When a patient is initially diagnosed, a tournament of clinical tests and trails begins, often when it’s too late for these treatments to work effectively.
The best we’ve got
The most common means of identifying Alzheimer’s at present are either “expensive” or “invasive.” The first characterization is aimed at the use of brain scans, which came into common practice in the late ’90s.
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One of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s is a build up of amyloid-Beta and tau proteins in the brain. Either CTS or MRI scans are used to determine the loss of brain mass that occurs years before cognitive decline. Why are these necessary procedures so expensive? Obtaining an image machine is merely a costly affair for hospitals, saying nothing of the fact that most doctors prefer to run as many tests as possible. Moreover, providers can charge whatever they like to, which means the prices vary significantly from practice to practice.
The other standard method of identifying Alzheimer’s is a lumbar puncture or a spinal tap; a procedure ushered in by a team of Swedish scientists back in 2006. In order to analyze the proteins associated with Alzheimer’s, medical professionals extract samples from the fluid that surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord. This is a very stressful and sometimes painful procedure for patients. Both systems are regularly used even though, as Gates points out, many patients seek evaluation after the disease is already pretty advanced. The next promising mechanism of combat against this deadly disease is ascertaining an affordable, simplistic painless way to spot symptoms as early as possible.
A call for unusual approaches
In a recent blog post Gates enthusiastically declared his investment in a new fund with the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation called Diagnostics Accelerator, alongside Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos. This notable partnership has put a shared objective more into focus: blood tests. They have donated $15 million to date and the fund, which started in July of 2018, now has a total of $35 million in investments from a collection of partners.
Not too long ago a team of researchers conducted a study that disclosed data that submitted changes in the blood in patients with Alzheimer’s. Independent studies that yielded similarly consistent results signify that the use of blood samples to diagnose Alzheimer’s might come into practice as early as one or two years from now.
Gates writes, “That’s super exciting because it means that labs will be able to recruit more patients more quickly, and scientists will be able to figure out whether a drug works in less time. It also means that you’ll one day be able to easily get tested during a routine doctor’s visit.”
That’s the digestible promising stride in Alzheimer’s diagnosis research. Gates additionally mentions another possible way of identifying the disease early on, one that he describes as coming right out of “science fiction.”
A meeting with a researcher named Rhoda Au, revealed a method that is perhaps not as close as blood testing in terms of actualization but inspires buoyancy all the same. Dr. Au is in charge of neuropsychology for the Framingham Heart Study, which has monitored residents of a town for more than 70 years. Some of these residents have developed Alzheimer’s, and apparently highlighted differences in speech patterns that energized an interesting idea. There are subtle changes in the way AD patients speak, changes meaningful enough to perhaps identify its development before advanced stages. Like many forms of malady, the earlier the diagnosis the more optimistic the prognosis.
Whether are not these methods will be sufficient enough to sustain usage going forward, is not yet known. The important take away from this kind of research though, is how faithfully imagination serves diligent research and analysis. The brain is an impossibly complex organ, so it stands to reason that unorthodox tactics would be best suited to rectify cognitive atrophy. Gates writes, “That deeper understanding is already benefitting Alzheimer’s research, and I’m eager to see what other game-changing diagnostics it unlocks in the years to come.”
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