Research breakthrough into early Alzheimer’s detection


Early diagnosis could be as “simple as a blood test”. But what has the origins of the Moon got to do with it?

A new research breakthrough could lead to an early diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s disease, helping pave the way to earlier detection of the likelihood of developing the condition. 

James Cook University researcher Brandon Mahan worked with a team of French researchers at the Université de Paris, Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (UP, IPGP; Paris, France) who compared brains with and without Alzheimer’s to discover what made them different.

“Our study is the first time it has clearly been shown that healthy human brains and Alzheimer’s brains have these different isotopic signatures,” he said. “Specifically, they have different copper and zinc isotope compositions, which also correlate with the progression of the disease.”

Copper and zine isotopes occur naturally in healthy brains. What Mahan and his team have discovered is that the proportions of these isotopes are changed in an Alzheimer's brain.

It is hoped further research will shed light on why this imbalance in isotopes occurs.

“By uncovering this isotopic difference in brain tissues of humans, the hope is that eventually this will lead to a non-invasive and early diagnostic indicator for Alzheimer’s... It’s possible it could be as simple as a blood test.”

Currently, Alzheimer’s is often diagnosed through brain scans used to detect lesions that typically occur after the disease has significantly advanced, however the first stages of the disease can occur decades earlier.

“By uncovering this isotopic difference in brain tissues of humans, the hope is that eventually this will lead to a non-invasive and early diagnostic indicator for Alzheimer’s”, said Mahan. “It’s possible it could be as simple as a blood test.”  

The team, comprised of researchers from Australia and France, used mass spectrometry (a technique for analysing ionized isotopes) to compare the copper and zinc isotopic compositions of 10 human brains with Alzheimer’s and 10 without.

Interestingly, this type of mass spectrometry is often used to analyse extra-terrestrial materials, such as meteorites and lunar rocks, and used to study things like the origin of the Moon. 

Interestingly, this [technique] is often used to analyse extra-terrestrial materials, such as meteorites and lunar rocks...

“It allows for ultra-precise measurements of stable metal isotope compositions, and metals have a strong link to Alzheimer’s disease and its pathologies, which is why we used the technique here to analyse brains with Alzheimer’s.” 

Mahan said it is anticipated that these changes in brain isotopic composition will be mirrored in body fluids, which may allow for the development of blood diagnostics in the future.

“We anticipate something similar to what’s currently being explored in cancer research, and what has been successfully used to detect bone loss, such as in osteoporosis and space flight,” he said. 

“Alzheimer’s creates a massive emotional, social and financial burden on society,” he said. “That’s why finding a way to diagnose the disease early, and with non-invasive testing, is so important. It is our hope that this research, and more like it, will bring us closer,” he concluded.