Researchers have come up with a new way to find people who have a higher genetic risk of getting Alzheimer’s before they show any symptoms. This could speed up the process of finding new treatments.

These results were published in the open-access journal PLOS Genetics today and are the work of a team led by Manish Paranjpe of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States.

Alzheimer’s disease causes a gradual decline in memory and other mental abilities. While there are medications available to alleviate symptoms, it has been difficult to find ways to either prevent or slow the progression of the disease. Some clinical trials that looked at possible treatments may have failed because they used people with diseases that were too far along to be treated. Better ways to determine Alzheimer’s risk could aid therapy research.

Paranjpe and colleagues examined data on 7.1 million common DNA variants—changes to the conventional DNA sequence—from a previous study that included tens of thousands of participants with or without Alzheimer’s in order to assist fill that gap. On the basis of the DNA variants that an individual possesses, they created a revolutionary way of using this data to estimate their likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Then, they used information from more than 300,000 more people to improve and confirm the method.

The team says that their DNA-based method probably isn’t good enough for doctors to predict a patient’s risk of Alzheimer’s because it may not be as accurate for populations outside of Europe, it could affect insurance, and it could cause worry without a good way to prevent it. But it could be used to speed up work on Alzheimer’s.

To show how useful the new method could be, researchers used it to figure out if each of 636 blood donors was at risk for Alzheimer’s. They then checked to see if the blood levels of any of the 3,000 proteins were higher or lower than normal in those who were at high risk. The analysis found 28 proteins that might be linked to the risk of Alzheimer’s, some of which have never been looked at before in Alzheimer’s research. The study of these proteins may lead to the discovery of novel medication development possibilities.

Future research could help confirm and build on these results, such as by looking at populations with roots outside of Europe.

“We developed a genetic predictor of Alzheimer’s disease associated with both clinical diagnosis and age-dependent cognitive decline,” says senior author Dr. Amit V. Khera. “By studying the circulating proteome of healthy individuals with very high versus low inherited risk, our team nominated new biomarkers of neurocognitive disease.”

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