Detecting dementia in the blood

Anyone who has a family history of Alzheimer’s disease must be ready to undergo a slew of time-consuming and intrusive tests until the diagnosis is made. Using atomic force microscopy, a team from Empa and the Cantonal Hospital of St. Gallen is currently creating a blood test that will allow for an accurate diagnosis (AFM). Science Advances, a peer-reviewed publication, has published the initial findings of the team’s successful pilot study. Physicist Peter Nirmalraj’s first goal was to discover the molecular etiology of Alzheimer’s disease in order to develop novel diagnostic and therapeutic methods. Identifying the precise function beta-amyloid peptides and tau proteins play in the neurodegenerative illness would be the next logical step. As a result, Nirmalraj set out to do more than just look for the existence of the suspicious proteins; he also wanted to figure out how many there were and how varied they were.

Researchers from Empa University analyzed the protein deposits on blood cells to determine their size, shape, and texture. They anxiously anticipated the comparison of Nirmalraj’s counts with the neurologists’ clinical data after analyzing tens of thousands of RBcs. There was a correlation between patients’ symptoms and their illness stage, as well, as the researchers discovered. The beta-amyloid peptides and tau proteins seen in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease were in abundance. The proteins may form hundreds of nanometer-long threads by self-assembling. When it came to those who were healthy or had mild to moderate brain problems, Nirmalraj found a surprising number of fibers.

AFM blood study shows its practicality, says Empa researcher: “If a valid blood test based on this technique can be established, individuals with suspected Alzheimer’s would be spared the painful puncture of the spinal canal in order to accurately identify the illness.” In spite of this, basic blood tests are still far from being accessible in hospitals. The next step for the research is to confirm the findings by examining a larger number of patients at various stages of the illness using AFM and chemical analyses. Both proteins’ total concentration in bodily fluids can be determined using current techniques. These methods, on the other hand, do not enable the observation of variations in protein accumulations’ form and condition. Since nanometer-scale measurements in blood do not damage protein structure or shape, the scientist is developing methods that enable them.

Nirmalraj has now successfully completed a preliminary research in collaboration with neurologists at the cantonal hospital in St. Gallen. He analyzed the blood of 50 sick and 16 healthy people as part of their pilot research. One thousand red blood cells per individual were examined using AFM technology by the Empa researcher who had no prior knowledge of each subject’s health. According to Nirmalraj, this was the only method to ensure that the interpretation of the data was unbiased.

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