Researchers Discover Marker That Predicts Speed of Mental Decline from Alzheimer's


This is how a brain cell dies.
  • This is how a brain cell dies.

If you're at all prone to hypochondria, here's another thing to keep you up late worrying:

Researchers at Washington University Medical School have discovered a new marker that shows how rapidly your mental faculties will decline, should you develop Alzheimer's. In a recent study, patients with a higher level of the marker, visinin-like protein 1 (or VILIP-1 for short) had greater damage to their brain cells within a shorter amount of time and started to lose their memories and ability to think much more quickly.

The study was a small one -- only 60 patients in the early stages of Alzheimer's -- but the researchers were confident enough to publish their findings in the most recent issue of Neurology.

"VILIP-1 appears to be a strong indicator of ongoing injury to brain cells as a result of Alzheimer's disease," lead author Dr. Rawan Tarawneh, MD, now an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Jordan, said in a statement. "That could be very useful in predicting the course of the disease and in evaluating new treatments in clinical trials."

Over the course of the study, the researchers recruited 60 patients with mild Alzheimer's, took samples of their spinal fluid to check for VILIP-1 and then administered a series of cognitive tests. It appeared that the higher levels of VILIP-1 corresponded to lower levels of mental ability.

Previously, doctors tracked the progress of Alzheimer's by looking at levels of two other proteins in spinal fluid, amyloid beta and tau. But, says Tarawneh, the presence of amyloid beta and tau in the spine only meant that the proteins were also starting to form deposits in the brain. VILIP-1 appears to show how much brain cells have actually been damaged by the disease.

The next step will be for the researchers to set up a much larger study to see if the hypothesis holds true among a larger population. Tarawneh has confidence, though, in VILIP-1.

"In patients with early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease," she said, "VILIP-1 seems to be at least as good as -- and potentially even better than -- the other prognostic indicators we used in the study."