January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. For the first time, Canadians can now access a new test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, thanks to a study being led by researchers at UBC’s faculty of medicine.
The test—which measures proteins known as biomarkers in the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord—could assist with earlier and more accurate diagnosis of the disease, giving patients and their families much needed answers and assistance with planning.
Over half a million Canadians are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia. With a rapidly aging population, that number is projected to double by 2031.
“This is an urgent and rapidly growing health care issue,” says principal investigator Dr. Mari DeMarco, a clinical associate professor at UBC’s department of pathology and laboratory medicine and clinical chemist at Providence Health Care. “The Alzheimer’s disease biomarker test, which we have now made available to all Canadians, can help doctors accurately diagnose the disease even when only mild symptoms are present.”
Through the study, called IMPACT-AD, Dr. DeMarco worked with individuals with lived experience with dementia, along with health care providers and other partners, to implement a comprehensive diagnostic testing strategy. The IMPACT-AD team includes DMCBH members Drs. Howard Feldman, Robin Hsiung, Haakon Nygaard and Julie Robillard.
The team recently achieved one of their major goals by making the test available for people across Canada via the clinical laboratory at St. Paul’s Hospital. The test must be ordered by doctors specializing in dementia care, who may recommend it for individuals experiencing mild to moderate symptoms that they suspect are caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
Early and accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is critical as it can provide patients with more timely access to health care and community services, which have the potential to lead to more effective treatment and improve quality of life. While current approaches for diagnosis rely on imaging tests and observation of the signs and symptoms of the disease, the researchers say the new test can provide added benefits.
“This is an important addition to the toolkit we use to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. DeMarco. “Adding the measure of biomarkers has been shown to help correctly identify the disease and predict those with mild symptoms that are likely to progress to dementia.”
In Alzheimer’s disease, the proteins amyloid-beta and tau clump together in the brain to form amyloid plaques and tau tangles, respectively. As it is not possible to see these clumps using regular imaging techniques, the new test measures protein levels in the cerebrospinal fluid, using them as biomarkers that help determine if a person’s declining brain health is likely due to Alzheimer’s disease.
As part of the study, patients are also able to provide their perspective on how the test results impacted their lives. With additional input from patients’ families and their doctors, DeMarco and her colleagues hope to address barriers to uptake and use in the Canadian healthcare system.
“The IMPACT-AD study is exceptional because Dr. DeMarco carefully designed the research project to include an in-depth exploration of how persons with a lived experience of dementia are impacted by this new test,” said Dr. Robillard. “It is so important to bring the voices of the dementia community at the forefront of research in this field.”
Overall, the goal of IMPACT-AD is to inform positive change in the Canadian health care system to improve care and support for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease, and their families.
This project was made possible with the support of Health Canada, Brain Canada, Michael Smith Health Research BC, UBC’s Faculty of Medicine and Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, Women’s Brain Health Initiative, St. Paul’s Foundation, and in collaboration with the Alzheimer Society of Canada and the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging.
A version of this story was originally published on the Faculty of Medicine website.