Health Advice



The hunt for a simple blood test to detect Alzheimer's disease

Lisa M. Krieger, The Mercury News on

Published in Health & Fitness

At age 58, “I definitely was having memory issues, but people just kind of dismissed it,” said Pam Montana, now 66, of Danville, a former sales executive at Intel whose agile mind could no longer memorize complex engineering concepts. Words come easily to her, but when she met with her staff, she read from notes to ensure accuracy.

“Diagnosis was really a struggle for me,” she said. “I’m chatty, and had a cute outfit on, and makeup, and they said ‘You look great.’ Everybody thinks Alzheimer’s is a grandma in a wheelchair.”

Only during a routine conversation at the doctor’s office — when she couldn’t remember where she earned her graduate degree – did alarms go off.

Her diagnosis was later confirmed by a high-tech PET scan, which involves an injection of radio-tracing fluid and lying motionless in a long tube. A diagnosis may be even harder if a patient lacks access to medical specialists and high-tech tests.

“If there was somebody that could just draw my blood and say, ‘Yeah, you have this, or you have that,’ then we could take it from there,” she said.

With so few treatments available for the debilitating condition, why might a test be useful?


“Early diagnosis is extremely helpful for several reasons,” said Lena Chow of Palo Alto, who cared for her late husband Bob Kuhar, a long-distance runner and engineer with a PhD in clinical psychology. “There are lifestyle changes and numerous strategies, such as programs for ensuring socialization, to improve the quality of life. There are also pragmatic reasons, such as taking away the driver’s license, for safety.”

A major advance in Alzheimer’s research built the foundation for testing: the so-called “biomarker revolution,” which made it possible to detect plaques and tangles. A test measures the biomarkers that leak into the bloodstream.

But reliability proved elusive. Due to the blood-brain barrier, biomarkers couldn’t be found in sufficient quantities. And blood is a soup of many different substances, so traditional tools delivered inconsistent results.

Now, with the advent of better analytical techniques, even tiny amounts of these biomarkers can be detected.


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