Alzheimer's move brings new hope

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 August, 2010, 12:00am

The longer people live, the greater the urgency of the search for a magic bullet for one of the serious consequences - an epidemic of dementia. This has galvanised research into the progressive brain disease Alzheimer's. But medical science remains a long way from prevention, cure or even therapeutic treatment for it.

Even the diagnosis is sometimes only confirmed at autopsy. This, at least, may change before too long. A simple test to find early signs of Alzheimer's is a big step closer. American researchers writing in the Archives of Neurology report that a spinal fluid test can be 100 per cent accurate in telling whether a patient without definite symptoms, except perhaps mild memory loss - or indeed anyone - is on the way to developing the disease. Scientists have also developed new brain scans that detect amyloid plaques that are unique to Alzheimer's.

The disease remains untreatable. While a diagnosis of cancer need not be a death sentence, one of Alzheimer's ultimately is, if nothing else causes death. Early diagnosis is especially significant, because definite symptoms may not appear until 10 years or more after the disease starts - too late to save the brain. Earlier identification of victims will enable researchers to use them in various studies of the onset of symptoms and the use of drugs that may slow or one day halt the disease.

Although spinal fluid tests are available now, it will take some time to develop a regime for Alzheimer's testing. In any case, less invasive imaging scans for amyloid plaques - not yet commercially available - may eventually be preferred by both doctors and patients.

This would be a small step towards meeting the challenge of a 21st century scourge, but it resonates with Asia's fast-ageing societies, particularly a looming welfare crisis in China. Medical, nursing and care resources devoted to dementia patients are already overwhelmed by demand, with Hong Kong no exception. Increased research and better understanding of the disease offer the best hope of coping with a global ageing crisis.