Health

Spinal test offers new hope to patients with early dementia

Spinal test offers new hope to patients with early dementia

Alzheimer’s treatment ‘turned up to 11’ with new spinal test to spot early signs of dementia that offers rapid drug therapy

  • Almost one million Britons have dementia, with Alzheimer’s being the most common
  • Spinal tap pilot study correctly identifies 90 percent of dementia cases
  • Early treatment can delay the devastating impact of dementia on patients

A spinal tap test could soon be introduced to detect the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease NHS so that a radical new treatment can be started in time.

Almost a million Britons have dementia – Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form – which damages the brain, causing memory loss, confusion and behavioral changes.

The spinal tap, which is currently undergoing a pilot study, uses a long needle to remove fluid from the spinal cord and has been shown to correctly identify 90 per cent of dementia cases and experts believe it is faster than traditional NHS screening tools such as memory tests and brain scans.

Although the procedure, also known as a lumbar puncture, is potentially painful, experts say the results could be worthwhile because it will allow doctors to offer anti-dementia drugs at the earliest stages of the disease, when they are most effective.

The spinal tap, which is currently undergoing a pilot study, uses a long needle to remove fluid from the spinal cord and has been shown to correctly identify 90 per cent of dementia cases and experts believe it is faster than traditional NHS screening tools such as memory tests and brain scans

Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is also essential for a breakthrough new drug, lecanemab, which has been found to slow the progression of the disease by almost a third and could be available on the NHS next year.

Alzheimer’s disease is believed to be caused by the accumulation of amyloid, a toxic protein, in the brain. Lekanemab, given by injection every two weeks, has been shown to bind to and destroy amyloid, slowing the progression of the disease. But currently only one in 20 Alzheimer’s patients are said to be able to benefit from the drug because many are diagnosed too late for it to be effective.

While most Alzheimer’s diagnoses in the UK are detected through memory tests, many countries already use the spinal tap. This calls for a build-up of amyloid in the spinal fluid, as well as another protein, tau, which is suspected to be linked to Alzheimer’s. But many patients resist undergoing the test because of side effects that can include headaches, swelling and long-term back pain.

‘This test is cheap, effective and used around the world, so it is unusual that it is not used in the NHS,’ says Professor Dag Aarsland, head of geriatric psychiatry at King’s College London. ‘Catching disease early is always key, but this will be especially the case with this new drug.

While most Alzheimer's diagnoses in the UK are detected through memory tests, many countries already use the spinal tap

While most Alzheimer’s diagnoses in the UK are detected through memory tests, many countries already use the spinal tap

‘The sooner you detect Alzheimer’s disease, the more brains you can save.’

Researchers at King’s College London are now carrying out a pilot study to analyze how feasible it would be to introduce the lumbar puncture test – created by medical firm Roche – on the NHS.

“We want to know if patients are happy to go through it and if doctors are comfortable using it,” says Professor Arsland. ‘If lecanemab is approved then it will absolutely be more adopted in the NHS.’



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