A team of researchers from the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia, have discovered a simple blood test could diagnose dementia years earlier.
Because the first symptoms of dementia are often depression and anxiety, many people do not realise they have the disease.
“In many situations, the blood tests, the brain scans, even the memory testing can be close to normal,” Professor Dennis Velakoulis told ABC.
“There are many situations that general practitioners and specialists face where it’s unclear if someone has a mental health or psychiatric disorder, like depression.”
Professor Velakoulis hopes the research his team is doing will one day help patients get answers earlier.
“The general feeling when psychiatrists hear about this research is one of expectation and hope,” he said.
The test will work by measuring the level of neurofilament light in the blood.
“Neurofilament light, or NFL, is a protein that lives in brain cells. It helps to maintain the structure of brain cells. And when a brain cell is damaged, it’s released,” he said.
“When we see it elevated in the spinal fluid or blood, it indicates that there’s been some brain injury and the brain cells have died.”
Crucially, neurofilament light is not present in samples from patients with mental illness, meaning this test could differentiate between the two conditions.
“People with psychiatric illnesses, or people who are healthy, have normal levels of NFL, because there’s no brain cells dying. But in many neurological disorders, particularly in dementia, there are brain cells that are dying and releasing NFL.”
The team hopes that following more research, the technology will be developed.
“If the test is confirmed to perform in the same way that it did in our earlier study, then we would be hoping that this blood test would be widely available to general practitioners and other specialists.”
This new research may not just help people with dementia, it could also assist in diagnosing other rare neurological conditions where brain cell death occurs.
Dementia describes a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. It is not one specific disease.
Dementia affects thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks. Brain function is affected enough to interfere with the person’s normal social or working life.