Researchers at Aarhus University have discovered a method to identify Alzheimer’s disease before it progresses to dementia, potentially opening up new avenues for treatment.

A groundbreaking study could pave the way for early detection and possibly offer a route to decelerate the advancement of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers have discovered a special receptor on immune cells that can effectively bind and neutralize harmful “beta proteins”, which are strongly associated with the disease.

“The method allows us to monitor disease-related changes at an earlier stage than is possible with traditional methods. And this is important when it comes to Alzheimer’s because it’s known to develop over a very long period of time. This is also why treatment is typically first started when the disease is already so advanced that it may be almost impossible to slow down,” explains Kristian Juul-Madsen, postdoc at the Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University, and one of the researchers behind the study.

“If we can activate the body’s own immune system at an earlier stage of the disease, it might be possible to slow down its progression before it develops into full-blown dementia,” he adds.

A great leap for diagnostics

The study suggests that the activity of the peripheral immune system may play a crucial role in the body’s defense against Alzheimer’s by preventing the accumulation of harmful proteins in the brain.

The new method uses an advanced type of blood test analysis that is particularly sensitive to the early stages of the disease. This is a major breakthrough compared to current diagnostic tools, such as PET scans, which can usually only spot the disease once it is at an advanced stage.

“Our hope is that these discoveries can pave the way for new strategies in the fight against Alzheimer’s. By understanding how the immune system can be mobilized against early stages of the disease, we might be able to develop therapies that can intervene much earlier than current treatment options,” says Kristian Juul-Madsen.

International attention

The results of the study have received international attention, and the research team behind the discovery is already planning follow-up projects to test the new method in a larger patient group.

The research team is also trying to understand the exact mechanisms behind the immune system’s ability to fight the early signs of Alzheimer’s, which could be key to developing even more effective treatments in the future.

“The biggest challenge in transferring our research to the clinic is that it takes a long time to test the beneficial effect of activating the immune system, as Alzheimer’s is known to develop very slowly and you need to intervene at a very early stage,” explains Kristian Juul-Madsen.

While the study is promising for the fight against Alzheimer’s, it also raises some ethical concerns. After all, what will an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s mean for patients and their families when there is currently no effective treatment for the disease?

“Of course, it’s sad if you can identify the development of a dangerous disease like Alzheimer’s without being able to do anything to stop it. However, this is something we need to do in order to develop a treatment in the future,” says Kristian Juul-Madsen.

Reference: “Amyloid-β aggregates activate peripheral monocytes in mild cognitive impairment” by Kristian Juul-Madsen, Peter Parbo, Rola Ismail, Peter L. Ovesen, Vanessa Schmidt, Lasse S. Madsen, Jacob Thyrsted, Sarah Gierl, Mihaela Breum, Agnete Larsen, Morten N. Andersen, Marina Romero-Ramos, Christian K. Holm, Gregers R. Andersen, Huaying Zhao, Peter Schuck, Jens V. Nygaard, Duncan S. Sutherland, Simon F. Eskildsen, Thomas E. Willnow, David J. Brooks and Thomas Vorup-Jensen, 9 February 2024, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-45627-y