Researchers at Southfield-based Beaumont Health have discovered a blood test that may provide an early prediction of Alzheimer’s disease in patients.
The research team used artificial intelligence and deep learning processes to analyze extracted DNA from whole blood samples. The analysis discovered 152 significant genetic differences between patients with Alzheimer’s and health patients.
The discovery was reported in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE. It has the potential to provide diagnoses in patients before symptoms develop and the brain is already irreversibly damaged. The brain changes in Alzheimer’s disease are believed to precede the onset of symptoms by years, and about 60 percent of patients are women.
“The holy grail is to identify patients in the pre-clinical stage so effective early interventions, including new medications, can be studied and ultimately used,” says Dr. Bahado-Singh, leader of the study, chairman of the Beaumont Department of Obstetrics, and gynecologist and an expert in women’s health. “That’s why we are excited about the results of this research.”
Globally, more than 47 million individuals have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of age-related dementia. As the population ages, it is projected that 75 million will be affected by Alzheimer’s by 2030, with a further rise to 131 million by 2050, causing the World Health Organization to declare it a global health priority.
The disease is caused by an accumulation of proteins in the brain that causes plaque build-up, inflammation, and the eventual death of brain cells. Most patients are not diagnosed until the disease’s later stages. There is no cure for the disease, and treatment is limited to drugs that attempt to treat symptoms and have little effect of the disease’s progression.
“Drugs used in the late stage of the disease do not seem make much difference, so there is a tremendous amount of interest in diagnosis in the early stages of the disease,” said Dr. Imam, who specializes in treating Alzheimer’s and other diseases affecting the elderly. “Any delay in symptom onset is likely to be very beneficial. Also, a spinal tap or MRI can identify the start of the disease. But that is invasive and/or expensive. And you cannot do a spinal tap on everyone over age 65. So, blood is thought to be a desirable way of approaching this. And it would be relatively cheap and minimally invasive as compared to an MRI or spinal tap.”
The analysis compared blood samples from 24 Alzheimer’s patients and 24 healthy patients. The researchers analyzed white blood cells in the samples, comparing biomarkers to see if they had been genetically affected in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Part of the Alzheimer’s disease process is brain inflammation through to trigger the production of white blood cells, or leukocytes, which then become genetically altered in their battle to fight the disease. The researchers looked for resulting genetic markers, a chemical modification of genes leading to altered gene functioning, indicating that the disease process has started.
The researchers used six different artificial intelligence platforms to look at about 800,000 changes in the genome of the markers. Analysis was overseen by study co-investigators Buket Aydas of the Department of Healthcare Analytics at Meridian Health in Detroit and Halil Biskin of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Michigan. The study was also supported by the Department of Molecular and Functional Genomics at Geisinger in Danville, Pennsylvania, and the University of Pennsylvania.
“What the results said to us is there are significant changes in accessible blood cells that we can use possibly to detect Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Bahado-Singh says. “We found that the genetic analysis accurately predicted the absence or presence of Alzheimer’s, allowing us to read what is going on in the brain through the blood. The results also gave us a readout of the abnormalities that are causing Alzheimer’s disease. This has future promise for developing targeted treatment to interrupt the disease process.”
Next steps include organizing a larger study to replicate the researchers’ initial findings over the next year.