Alzheimer’s disease produces chemical markers years before symptoms show

18 December 2011

A new study suggests that Alzheimer’s disease is preceded by the presence of particular chemicals in the blood. These indicators can be analysed by a simple biochemical analysis of a blood serum sample months or even years before the first symptoms of the disease occur.

In a healthcare setting, the application of such an assay could therefore complement the neurocognitive assessment by the medical doctor and could be applied to identify the at-risk patients in need of further comprehensive follow-up.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a growing challenge to the healthcare systems and economies of developed countries. Millions of patients suffer from this disease and increasing numbers of new cases diagnosed annually with the increasing ageing of populations.

The progression of Alzheimer’s disease is gradual, with the subclinical stage of illness believed to span several decades. The pre-dementia stage, also termed mild cognitive impairment (MCI), is characterised by subtle symptoms that may affect complex daily activities. MCI is considered as a transition phase between normal aging and AD. MCI confers an increased risk of developing AD, although the state is heterogeneous with several possible outcomes, including even improvement back to normal cognition.

The team of researchers led by Matej Orešič from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Hilkka Soininen from the University of Eastern Finland set out to study the molecular changes and processes which define those MCI patients who are at high risk of developing AD. The results were published on 13th Dec. 2011 in Translational Psychiatry.

The team used metabolomics, a high-throughput method for detecting small metabolites, to produce profiles of the serum metabolites associated with progression to AD. Serum samples were collected at baseline when the patients were diagnosed with AD, MCI, or identified as healthy controls. 52 out of 143 MCI patients progressed to AD during the follow-up period of 27 months on average.

A molecular signature comprising three metabolites measured at baseline was derived which was predictive of progression to AD. Furthermore, analysis of data in the context of metabolic pathways revealed that pentose phosphate pathway was associated with progression to AD, also implicating the role of hypoxia and oxidative stress as early disease processes.

The unique study setting allowed the researchers to identify the patients diagnosed with MCI at baseline who later progressed to AD and to derive the molecular signature which can identify such patients at baseline.

Though there is no current therapy to prevent AD, early disease detection is vital both for delaying the onset of the disease through pharmacological treatment and/or lifestyle changes and for assessing the efficacy of potential AD therapeutic agents. The elucidation of early metabolic pathways associated with progression to Alzheimer’s disease may also help in identifying new therapeutic avenues.

This study was supported by the project “From patient data to personalised healthcare in Alzheimer's disease” (PredictAD) which was supported by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Programme.


M. Orešič, T. Hyötyläinen, S.-K. Herukka, M. Sysi-Aho, I. Mattila, T. Seppänan-Laakso, V. Julkunen, P. V. Gopalacharyulu, M. Hallikainen, J. Koikkalainen, M. Kivipelto, S. Helisalmi, J. Lötjönen, H. Soininen, Metabolome in progression to Alzheimer’s disease, Translational Psychiatry (2011) 1, e57; doi:10.1038/tp.2011.55


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