EDMONTON, Alberta — Catching the development of Alzheimer’s disease early on can make a world of difference in helping to treat the devastating condition. Scientists have long sought to find accurate, easier methods of detecting the disease, and now a promising new study shows that a simple saliva test might just do the trick.

Researchers from the University of Alberta say they’ve identified three biomarkers that indicate Alzheimer’s, as well as mild cognitive impairment, a more common condition with minimal impairment compared to Alzheimer’s or dementia. The finding could be groundbreaking should it prove worthy of use in a clinical setting.

Roger Dixon, Liang Li - Alzheimer's disease saliva test study
The research team combines expertise in neurodegenerative disorders from Roger Dixon (L), professor in the Department of Psychology and in metabolomics from Liang Li, professor in the Department of Chemistry (R). Photo courtesy John Ulan.

“So far, no disease-altering interventions for Alzheimer’s disease have been successful,” says Roger Dixon, a professor in the university’s Department of Psychology, in a news release. “For this reason, researchers are aiming to discover the earliest signals of the disease so that prevention protocols can be implemented.”

For the study, researchers took saliva samples from 109 patients who’d been either diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, or were cognitively healthy. The team used a powerful mass spectrometer to detect 6,230 metabolites in each sample, then compared the results to identify changes or differences among the groups.

“In this analysis, we found three metabolites that can be used to differentiate between these three groups,” explains Liang Li, a professor with the university’s Department of Chemistry. “This is preliminary work, because we’ve used a very small sample size. But the results are very promising. If we can use a larger set of samples, we can validate our findings and develop a saliva test of Alzheimer’s disease.”

The findings could be monumental in the fight against Alzheimer’s. More than 5.5 million Americans may have the disorder, according to the National Institute on Aging. But Dixon warns those numbers will grow far worse in the years to come, with projections pointing “to an impending and staggering global impact of neurodegenerative disease and dementia.”

The saliva test would not only allow for doctors to detect the disorder sooner, but it could also help scientists monitor which treatments are strongest in patients already diagnosed.

“Using the biomarkers, we can also do testing to see what types of treatments are most effective in treating Alzheimer’s disease—from diet to physical activity to pharmaceuticals,” says Li.

The study’s findings were presented in two papers, one published recently in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and the other in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

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