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Researchers from University College London (UCL) in the U.K. have found a new method of detecting neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's, up to 24 years in advance.
Their findings could hugely help in clinical trials by finding the almost-precise timing to begin treating the diseases.
Their findings were published in the Lancet Neurology.
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There is currently no treatment for many neurodegenerative illnesses, so finding a way to treat people before the genetic mutation causes functional impairments has been on scientists' minds.
"Ultimately, our goal is to deliver the right drug at the right time to effectively treat this disease – ideally we would like to delay or prevent neurodegeneration while function is still intact, giving gene carriers many more years of life without impairment," explained Professor Sarah Tabrizi of UCL and study lead.
Tabrizi continued "As the field makes great strides with the drug development, these findings provide vital new insights informing the best time to initiate treatments in the future, and represent a significant advance in our understanding of early Huntington’s."
The study focused on Huntington's mutation carriers, examining a cohort much younger than has previously ever been studied. It was also the most extensive study of the illness ever carried out.
The team discovered that there were no changes in thinking, behavior, or involuntary movements commonly found in the disease when they examined the volunteers who were carriers of Huntington's. However, the team did note a small increase in the spinal fluid of a neuronal protein called neurofilament light (NfL), which can lead to nerve cell damage.
Co-first author of the study, Dr. Paul Zeun said, "We have found what could be the earliest Huntington’s-related changes, in a measure which could be used to monitor and gauge effectiveness of future treatments in gene carriers without symptoms."
First co-author of the study, Dr. Rachael Scahill explained "We suspect that initiating treatment even earlier, just before any changes begin in the brain, could be ideal, but there may be a complex trade-off between the benefits of slowing the disease at that point and any negative effects of long-term treatment."
The team's findings could have a huge effect on people suffering, or going to suffer, from such neurodegenerative illnesses.