New research shows dementia signs could be detected 9 years before diagnosis

A new research study called ‘Pre-Diagnostic Cognitive and Functional Impairment in Multiple Sporadic Neurodegenerative Diseases Alzheimer’s & Dementia’ has been published in the Journal of the Alzheimers association, showing it may now be possible to detect signs of brain impairment before the onset of symptoms.

A research team at the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust led the project, with funding provided by the medical research council and NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

The research team analysed data collected by the UK Biobank and found impairment in areas such as problem-solving and number recall covering a range of cognitive conditions.

The UK Biobank used a variety of tests to gather data including how they solved problems, reaction times and grip strength. The team then found that those who later went on to develop Alzheimer’s, or other cognitive conditions, scored lower than those who hadn’t developed the disease.

The findings have now raised the possibility that future at-risk patients could be screened earlier, allowing for earlier intervention for drug treatments or allowing a bigger pool for clinical trial selection.

Senior Author of the study, Dr Tim Rittman from the department of clinical neuroscience at Cambridge University explained the benefits of early diagnosing and identifying brain impairments for clinical trial selection saying: “If we can find these individuals early enough, we’ll have a better chance of seeing if the drugs are effective.”

First Author Nol Swaddiwudhipong on the study detailed this impact: “This is a step towards us being able to screen people who are at greatest risk – for example, people over 50 or those who have high blood pressure or do not do enough exercise – and intervene at an earlier stage to help them reduce their risk.”

1 in 3 people will develop dementia in their lifetime, and although the study has opened up the possibility of early intervention, Dr Rittman advised “we would encourage anyone who has any concerns or notices that their memory or recall is getting worse to speak to their GP.”

Swaddiwudhipong, N, et al. Pre-Diagnostic Cognitive and Functional Impairment in Multiple Sporadic Neurodegenerative Diseases. Alzheimer’s & Dementia; 13 Oct 2022; DOI: 10.1002/alz.12802