New dementia test predicts disease 15 years out

An early warning system for dementia is now being trialled – would you take the test knowing dementia is fatal?

Key Points

  • Dementia is diagnosed only once symptoms appear.
  • UK researchers have developed a 5 minute test that predicts disease in advance.
  • National Health System is currently trialling the test.

Dementia is the leading cause of death among women, and only second to heart disease for men, with 10% of all adults dying of the disease.

Currently, most people are diagnosed only once symptoms start to appear. These can include severe memory loss, confusion, forgetting words or becoming anxious and withdrawn. 

So, if you could take a five minute test that told you 15 years in advance that you’d get Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, would you? Even if you knew it was fatal?

The Guardian and other UK media report that this possibility is not far off with UK company, Cognetivity Neurosciences, having developed such a test.

Using an iPad, the person being tested is presented with flashing pictures of either an animal or no animal. They are then asked to respond by clicking ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The report says that in evolutionary terms, spotting an animal very quickly was vital for our survival.

The task involves some of the most basic structures of our brains, such as the amygdala, which helps to regulate our fight-or-flight responses.

As the test relies purely on instinctive responses, we don’t consciously learn how to perform it, so practice cannot improve a person’s scores over time.

But why is this reaction important in terms of predicting dementia risk?

"In the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, it is not memory that gets affected," the commercial director of Cognetivity Neurosciences, James Medcalf said.

"Research shows instead that it is your brain’s processing speed that starts to slow, and this is what the new test shows."

The UK National Health System is trialling the test.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Thomas Sawyer, CEO of Cognetivity Neurosciences, said the test was “an early warning system for dementia” and wants to see it used as part of regular health checks.

“Then it can make sure people can be identified early, when they can be helped, and have a huge impact on patients and indeed costs on healthcare systems, because late diagnosis costs billions in healthcare every year,” Dr Sawyer said.

German early warning initiative

Meanwhile, scientists at the Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Bonn, Germany, are working on a more complex test they believe will also predict if someone will get dementia up to five years before it develops.

According to the Daily Mail, the scientists have identified three molecules in the blood, called microRNAs, that may indicate Alzheimer’s risk. MicroRNAs act as chemical messengers between cells, transporting instructions about, for example, the building of essential new proteins.

In research published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine, the scientists described how 90% of older people with very raised levels of the three molecules developed Alzheimer’s within two years.

Researchers now hope to develop a simple blood test that can be applied in routine medical care to assess dementia risk.

They say it may also be possible to develop drugs that can reverse the increase in these microRNAs — potentially undoing some of the damage.

Source: The Guardian and Daily Mail