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Early Detection of Alzheimer’s Disease a Possibility

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Research investigating concentrations of magnetite, a magnetic form of iron, in Alzheimer’s disease tissue has produced preliminary results that suggest the possibility of developing a technique to detect Alzheimer’s disease before clinical symptoms appear.

The research*, published in Biology Letters, an online supplement to the Royal Society’s Proceedings: Biological Sciences journal, demonstrates, for the first time, that concentrations of magnetite are higher in three samples of Alzheimer’s disease tissue than in three normal samples.

However, one of the normal samples showed low levels of magnetite rather than none, going against the expected results. When examined, the tissue was shown to have early signs of alteration associated with neurogenerative disease, although the tissue came from a patient not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This suggests that detecting levels of magnetite could be used to spot Alzheimer’s before the symptoms of dementia appear. Early, accurate diagnosis of the disease could one day allow patients to benefit from new treatments and to make long-range life plans.

Dr Jon Dobson, one of the paper’s authors, said: “At the moment we have only examined a small number of samples but the indications are positive. So far we have only looked at female tissue samples. One of the next steps will be to examine male samples to see if there appears to be a similar correlation.”

“We now have funding to get data from more samples in order to correlate levels of magnetite with disease progression. Looking three or four years down the line, we would hope to have enough data to develop a diagnostic tool by modifying magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners to look for accumulations of magnetite in patients.”

Elevated iron levels are associated with many types of neurodegenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. However, these elevated iron levels are not reflected in elevated levels of the iron storage or transport proteins. Therefore little is known about the form that this excess iron takes in the body. Recently it was proposed that some of the excess iron might be in the form of magnetic iron oxide (magnetite). The authors of the paper then used a technique known as SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device) magnetometry to scan samples of tissue for magnetite.

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