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Nottingham scientists uncover new clues for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s

February 7, 2012
Scientists in Nottingham have found abnormal levels of seven different proteins in spinal fluid could act as markers for detecting Alzheimer’s disease. The study, which was part-funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, could lead to the development of a new test to detect the disease in its early stages.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham’s Human Genetics department and Nottingham Trent University’s John van Geest Cancer Research Centre studied samples of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to look for potential markers of Alzheimer’s. They compared CSF samples from 33 people with Alzheimer’s disease, 20 healthy older people and ten people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) – a condition that causes problems with memory and thinking, but not to an extent that interferes with daily life.

Dr Baharak Vafadar-Isfahani and her colleagues first analysed each CSF sample to build a profile of the proteins it contained, and looked for patterns that could distinguish between people with Alzheimer’s and healthy people. They found people with the disease tended to have higher levels of four specific proteins, and lower levels of three other proteins, suggesting that together they could act as markers for the disease.

One protein in particular, called SPARCL1, was the strongest predictor for the disease. When the CSF samples were tested for changes in SPARCL1 alone, the researchers were able to detect whether a person had Alzheimer’s disease with 65% accuracy. When they checked for abnormal levels of all seven proteins, accuracy improved to 95%. The discovery of SPARCL1, amongst other proteins, resulted from the application of technologies developed at the John van Geest Cancer Research Centre.

The scientists then tested their findings on a new set of CSF samples, taken from 32 healthy people and 30 Alzheimer’s patients. All seven markers taken together were able to detect Alzheimer’s within this new cohort with 85% accuracy.

The researchers now plan to use their results, which are due to be published online in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease on 7 February, to help develop a blood test that could diagnose Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages.

Prof Kevin Morgan of the University of Nottingham, who co-authored the study, said:
“Our results have given us a new lead for improving early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. An early diagnosis would not only help people prepare for the future, but would also enable people to be involved in clinical trials at a much earlier stage, when new treatments are more likely to have a positive effect.

“It will also be important to investigate what causes these specific proteins to change as Alzheimer’s develops. If we can understand the biochemical changes that occur during Alzheimer’s, we stand a better chance of developing new treatments that can tackle the disease. Dementia can only be defeated through research, and I hope these findings could take us a step closer to that goal.”

Professor Robert Rees, the Director of the John van Geest Cancer Research Centre at Nottingham Trent University, said:
“The results of this study were obtained using analytical techniques to generate complex protein profiles from patient and control samples, coupled with advanced data analysis. We believe these findings will prove extremely important in allowing us to gain further insight into this disease.”

Dr Marie Janson, Director of Development at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Improving diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is a key target for scientists, and these important findings have opened up a new avenue for research. Alzheimer’s can be difficult to diagnose in the clinic, as memory problems on their own can be due to a variety of reasons. This study has the potential to help create a vital tool for doctors to identify patients that need further investigation – but these results must now be followed up in order to achieve that goal.

“Currently 820,000 people are affected by dementia, yet for many people a diagnosis comes too late. If we are to improve diagnosis for future generations, we must invest in research now.”

The study was supported by Alzheimer’s Research UK, the Big Lottery Fund and the EU FP6 Program through BIOPATTERN.


For further information, or to speak with Prof Kevin Morgan or Dr Marie Janson, please contact Kirsty Marais, Media Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK on 01223 843304, 07826 559233 or email

To speak with Prof Robert Rees or Prof Graham Ball, co-authors of the study, please contact Dave Rogers, Senior Press Officer at Nottingham Trent University on 0115 848 8782 or email

Notes to editors:

  • Ref: ‘Identification of SPARC-like protein as part of a biomarker panel for Alzheimer’s disease in cerebrospinal fluid’, by B Vafadar-Isfahani et al, is published online in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease on 7 February.
  • Alzheimer’s Research UK is the UK’s leading charity specialising in finding preventions, treatments and a cure for dementia.
  • To help us defeat dementia, donate today by visiting or calling 01223 843899.
  • We are currently supporting dementia research projects worth over £18 million in leading Universities across the UK.
  • The Big Lottery Fund (BIG), the largest distributor of National Lottery good cause funding, is responsible for giving out 46% of the money raised for good causes by the National Lottery.
  • BIG is committed to bringing real improvements to communities and the lives of people most in need and has been rolling out grants to health, education, environment and charitable causes across the UK. Since June 2004 BIG has awarded over £4.4bn.
  • The Fund was formally established by Parliament on 1 December 2006.
  • Since the National Lottery began in 1994, 28p from every pound spent by the public has gone to good causes. As a result, over £27 billion has now been raised and more than 370,000 grants awarded across arts, sport, heritage, charities, health, education and the environment.
  • The John van Geest Cancer Research Centre was established in 2008 within the School of Science and Technology at Nottingham Trent University, as a direct result of core funding from the John and Lucille van Geest Foundation. This funding provided a £5m purpose-built Research Centre and a grant support for a team of more than 30 scientists, technicians and PhD students.
  • The research focuses on the discovery and application of new cancer biomarkers for detecting cancer, monitoring disease progression and developing new approaches to treat patients using immunotherapy. Progress in these areas is based on a fundamental understanding of cancer cell biology and immunobiology. As a result of this investment in research, it has expanded its investigative programmes, introduced new technologies and developed extensive international collaborations to the benefit of the research.
  • For more information visit