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Pitt Researchers Help To Develop Blood Test For Alzheimer's

University of Pittsburgh

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have helped develop a diagnostic blood test for Alzheimer ’s, which could make it easier and cheaper to detect the disease.

Pitt collaborated with researchers at the Center for Biomedicine in Italy and the University of Chile.

Neurology professor Oscar Lopez said the test will help doctors differentiate between Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it's difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of dementia symptoms and there is no single test to diagnose Alzheimer’s. Doctors rely on a combination of clinical evaluation, neuropsychological testing and brain scans.

Other techniques, such as using radioactive tracers in combination with brain scans to look for Alzheimer’s-related plaques in the brain, are only effective at ruling out other causes of dementia. Furthermore, such tests are cost-prohibitive for most people.

“Those texts are extremely expensive,” Lopez said. “So the importance of the blood test is cost. Here you have a technology that can be used for diagnosis at a very low cost.”

The new test looks for the presence of abnormal tau proteins in the blood. Tau proteins are normally present in the healthy nerve cells of the brain, but the distortion of these proteins has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

“People with Alzheimer’s disease have more of this abnormal protein in blood,” Lopez said. “And people with this abnormal protein in blood have decrease volume, or more shrinkage, of the brain in the regions that are normally affected by Alzheimer’s disease.”

Lopez said he and his international colleagues have worked on developing such a test for more than 10 years. The latest study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, had only 60 participants. Lopez said the next step is to test the diagnostic technique with a larger group of patients. Pitt psychiatry professor James Becker also assisted with the research.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.