Detecting neurodegeneration – all in the blood?

Detection for protection – could biomarkers for dementia and neurodegeneration be the future?

Neurodegenerative diseases are often linked to age, and, as the population ages, incidences are expected to rocket as the population ages. It’s estimated that by 2030, as many as 1 in 5 Americans will be over the age of 65, so without progress in neurodegenerative research, in just a few decades, Harvard estimates, more than 12 million Americans will suffer from neurodegenerative diseases [1].

Neurodegenerative diseases take over the brain slowly and cause cognitive difficulties, affecting thought, memory, reason and attention span; this takes a huge physical and emotional toll on the patient, the family and the healthcare providers.

Longevity Technology: With new studies published everyday about diet lowering the risk of dementia, halting dementia in monkeys, or even finding a link between Parkinson’s and diabetes, it seems that the the more we find out about dementia, the more research questions there are to answer. However, recent work with biomarkers offer encouragement that regular, standard screenings could offer early detection and treatment, perhaps beginning to alleviate the enormous burden that results from neurodegeneration.

A new study published in Nature Communications by a research team from King’s College London and Lund University of Sweden indicates that there may be a potential new biomarker for neurodegenerative diseases in neurofilament light (NfL) which is released when cells have been damaged.

Elevated concentrations of NfL can indicate a neurodegenerative problem, and these can be detected in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) draws; however, CSF collection is invasive and painful, so not performed for routine screening purposes, which makes for roadblocks in CSF use for a standard screening diagnosis.

As it turns out, NfL levels found in the blood correlate strongly with those in the CSF, which suggests that the blood could be a less invasive biomarker. A research team led by Drs Nicholas Ashton, Abdul Hye and Oskar Hanssen, who are based at the University of Gothenburg, King’s College London, and Lund University in Sweden, investigated further. They measured blood NfL concentrations in 2,200 people from Europe, Canada and the US, including some scientists from NIH’s National Institute on Aging.

The study included people with 13 different neurodegenerative disorders, including disorders such as Down’s syndrome and even depression. The researchers were able to find elevated concentrations in people who had different dementias including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and even atypical parkinsonian disorders, which highlights the similarities found in these types of disorders [2].

Interestingly enough, it was found that the NfL concentrations were not disease specific – the NfL levels could indicate something was wrong, but could not clarify between different disorders. Although it really couldn’t distinguish between different diagnoses, the test was capable of telling the difference between people with moderate or severe depression and dementia.

The researchers determined two different thresholds, one for those 65 and above, and those though are younger than 65. Having these different thresholds allowed for even more accuracy in the detection; in fact, after making the distinction, NfL was accurate in diagnosing neurodegeneration in all age groups.

It would appear that a single biomarker can explain whether or not a person is experiencing neurodegeneration with surprising accuracy; judging by the results of the experiment, this could mean that blood tests for elevated NfL concentration could be the detection method of the future. Even if it isn’t discriminatory between the specific disorders, it “could help in services such as memory clinics as a rapid screening tool to identify whether memory, thinking, or psychiatric problems are a result of neurodegeneration,” says Hye [3].

With a rapid screening tool such as this, diagnoses could be streamlined which would allow further research to be conducted and would create a space for pre-emptive action on the part of the patient and healthcare services, whether that be via medication or lifestyle changes.


Image credit: Gordon JohnsonPixabay