Around 100,000 Austrians suffer from Alzheimer's disease and 16,000 from Parkinson’s. Experts estimate that, in view of the ageing population, these numbers are set to triple over the next 30 years. Both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases are progressive degenerative diseases of the brain, which start up to 30 years before the onset of symptoms. Early diagnosis would be a huge help in combating the disease. However, the early detection tests that are available do not provide any reliable prediction about the further course of the disease and also carry the risk of producing a false positive result. “Neurology researchers throughout the world are therefore on the hunt for a specific biomarker signal for Alzheimer's," explains Peter Dal-Bianco, Alzheimer's expert from MedUni Vienna.
Dal-Bianco is convinced: "There is a specific biomarker – we just haven't found it yet." The 13th International Conference on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases will take place in the Vienna Austria Center from Wednesday 29 March to Sunday 2 April (www.adpd2017.kenes.com). Dal-Bianco is on the local organising committee.
Biomarkers are biological characteristics in the body that can indicate the presence of a disease. Although there are particular biological signals for Alzheimer's in the liquor, such as the Aß peptides or Tau proteins, which can be used as a reference point for medical treatment, there are no "specific" biomarkers to indicate that a person will clinically develop a neurodegenerative disease in the future.
Says Dal-Bianco: "Currently we are only able to start treatment once the disease is clinically manifest." But the disease is already lying dormant in people who appear completely healthy from a clinical point of view. According to the MedUni Vienna expert, the aim for the future is to be able to screen people in risk groups from the age of e.g. 35 and to diagnose the disease with 100% certainty or, better still, inform them that they have no risk of developing it.
Tau proteins, which play an important role in material transport within neurons, are currently an important reference point. If the Tau proteins are hyperphosphorylated, material transport is disrupted, resulting in functional disturbances and ultimately leading to cell death. This is one of the main characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease. A few years ago a form of immunotherapy for reducing pathological Tau proteins was tested in a randomised, controlled study (RCT) under the direction of the Neurology Department in Graz (Reinhold Schmidt) and at MedUni Vienna (Dal-Bianco) together with the Clinical Pharmacology Department of MedUni Vienna. The results are very promising and, in a few years time, there could potentially be a vaccination against this cause of Alzheimer's.
Delaying and alleviating Alzheimer's disease
With the correct measures, it is possible to delay the clinical symptoms of Alzheimer's disease or to alleviate the initial symptoms such as forgetfulness, stresses the MedUni Vienna expert. For example, going for walks whilst holding a conversation or balance and memory training on the computer, social activities and a balanced diet can all help. Says Dal-Bianco: “So-called multitasking in our fast-moving world also boosts our cognitive ability. If someone refuses to do this, saying "leave me in peace" or is no longer capable of doing it, these could be the first warning signs of Alzheimer's."
Everyday electronic aids
In order to help Alzheimer's sufferers, the EU project entitled "Memento", which is being run by MedUni Vienna together with the AIT (Austrian Institute of Technology) and other international partners, is concerned with developing so-called electronic devices to help sufferers in their everyday lives. For example, a GPS can be used to give verbal directions for finding the way to the shops or back home again and there are also similar devices for tracking people.