Can we predict Alzheimer’s disease and its risk factors from the proteins found in the blood?

Research project: Integrated multi-omics prediction of incident Alzheimer's disease and its risk factors.

Lead Investigator: Dr Riccardo Marioni

  • Institution: University of Edinburgh
  • Grant type: Project
  • Duration: 36 months
  • Amount: £288,749

Why did we fund this research?

Comments from our Research Network volunteers:

‘I find this research hugely interesting. Being able to predict the onset of Alzheimer's is paramount to the outcome of an individual that develops the disease.’ 

‘This sounds like an exciting project with a worthy aim of potentially enabling early prediction of dementia years prior to actual diagnosis.’ 

Project summary

This project is looking for markers of Alzheimer’s disease present in the blood decades before symptoms start to appear.

The study will use medical information and blood samples from a very large group of participants in ‘Generation Scotland’. They will identify any molecular changes throughout life that differ between participants who develop Alzheimer’s disease and those that don’t. 

The background 

Researchers know that changes happen within the brain 10-20 years before a person experiences the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

This represents an extremely valuable clinical window where, when treatments are available, a high-risk patient could one day receive treatment to either delay the disease or prevent symptoms from arising entirely.

In the search for new treatments, identifying high-risk individuals is essential in ensuring the right participants are matched with the right clinical trials. 

When a cake fails to rise, the damage cannot be undone and the cake cannot be fixed. By this point, the conditions that led to the flat cake can be difficult to identify. It may be conditional such as the wrong oven temperature or not enough folding of air into the cake mix.

Alternatively, it could be that the composition of the mix was different: was the correct flour used? How fresh were the eggs? Changes to the cake may be as fine-tuned as whether the flour was ground fine enough, what species of wheat was it made from or whether the eggs were the wrong size. This is similar to our current situation in Alzheimer’s disease research.

Currently, by the time someone develops Alzheimer’s disease, there is nothing we can do to undo what has happened. We don’t currently understand whether the cause is due to environment (oven temperature), genetics (ingredients) a change in something (eggs getting old) or a combination of the above.

By looking closely at the conditions before the disease has started (checking your ingredients, utensils and oven) we can hope to identify common features that lead to Alzheimer’s disease and one day prevent or treat them.

What does this project involve?

In this project, the researchers will use an extremely large and valuable data resource called Generation Scotland. Generation Scotland was made up of 20,000 research participants ranging from ages 18 to 99 years old.

Extensive medical information was collected about each participant and includes blood samples and medical records with as much as 13 years of data for some participants. 

The researchers want to analyse blood samples from participants of Generation Scotland, with the aim of being able to predict which factors might put people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and to predict which individuals in the dataset would go on to eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease.

They will make these predictions based on the protein and genetic information they are able to collect from the participant blood samples. Once the predictions are made, the researchers will then see if their predictions correspond with the brain health of the participants and are accurate. 

How will this project help people with dementia?

Blood samples are much more accessible than other methods such as brain scans for assessing brain health and dementia. They are cheaper, quicker and less uncomfortable for the volunteer.

For researchers to be able to use blood samples to predict whether a person will go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease is crucial in identifying high-risk individuals to go on to clinical trials, with the hopes of making these trials more efficient.

Understanding more about the gene and protein changes that happen before Alzheimer’s disease symptoms arise is also essential in our understanding of the underlying causes of the disease and will help researchers develop new therapies for the future.

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