A new study finds that Alzheimer’s disease can be diagnosed before symptoms occur

The presence of two proteins in the brain allow researchers to predict who might get Alzheimer's disease in advance.
Brittney Grimes
Pathological Tau protein present in Alzheimer's disease.
Pathological Tau protein present in Alzheimer's disease.


A new study shows that Alzheimer’s disease can be diagnosed earlier, before there are any symptoms noticed. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden found out that it is possible to predict who could deteriorate within the upcoming years.

The study was published recently in the journal Nature Medicine.

Proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease

There are two proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease, which are beta-amyloid and tau. The protein beta-amyloid forms plaque in the brain and tau builds up inside the brain cells. High levels of these two proteins, along with cognitive impairment, often are the core of diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.

The ability to foresee when someone may be diagnoses with the disease proves to be revolutionary.  “Changes occur in the brain between ten and twenty years before the patient experiences any clear symptoms, and it is only when tau begins to spread that the nerve cells die and the person in question experiences the first cognitive problems, said Oskar Hansson, professor at Lund University and senior physician in neurology at Skåne University Hospital. “This is why Alzheimer's is so difficult to diagnose in its early stages,” he continued.

The research

In the study, there were 1,325 participants from Sweden, the United States, the Netherlands and Australia. At the beginning of the study, none of the participants had any signs of cognitive impairment. The researchers used PET scans to view the presence of tau and beta-amyloid proteins in the participants’ brains.

The people who showed the presence of the two proteins were found to be at a much higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to the people without the proteins and with no changes in their brain. The participants who had tau and beta-amyloid proteins present were 20 to 40 times more likely to be at risk for the disease.

From risk factor to diagnosis

“When both beta-amyloid and tau are present in the brain, it can no longer be considered a risk factor, but rather a diagnosis,” said Rik Ossenkoppele, the first author of the study and a senior researcher at Lund University and Amsterdam University Medical Center. “A pathologist who examines samples from a brain like this, would immediately diagnose the patient with Alzheimer's.”

Ossenkoppele describes the two different ideologies that researchers have towards Alzheimer’s diagnosis. One group believe that people cannot be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s until the onset of cognitive impairment. The other group, in which he considers himself, believes that the disease can be diagnosed based solely on biological results and what the researchers are able to view in the brain from scans.

Early diagnosis

As with diagnosing other diseases such as cancer, Ossenkoppele believes that finding a biomarker for Alzheimer’s will allow for earlier diagnosis before the disease becomes detrimental. “You can, for example, compare our results to prostate cancer. If you perform a biopsy and find cancer cells, the diagnosis will be cancer, even if the person in question has not yet developed symptoms,” Ossenkoppele stated.

The research team hopes that this study will allow for earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly give patients the chance to prevent further cognitive impairment with physical exercises, proper nutrition, and eventually, one day slow down the disease with medication.

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