The researchers evaluated markers such as the buildup of amyloid plaques in the brain, newly visible thanks to an imaging agent developed in the last decade; levels of various proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid, such as the amyloid fragments that are the principal ingredient of brain plaques; and the ratios of one protein to another in the cerebrospinal fluid, such as different forms of the brain cell structural protein tau.
The markers were studied in volunteers whose ages ranged from 45 to 88. On average, the data available on study participants spanned four years, with the longest recorded over 7.5 years.
The researchers found that all of the markers were equally good at identifying subjects who were likely to develop cognitive problems and at predicting how soon they would become noticeably impaired.
Next, the scientists paired the biomarkers data with demographic information, testing to see if sex, age, race, education and other factors could improve their predictions.
"Sex, age and race all helped to predict who would develop cognitive impairment," said Catherine Roe, PhD, research assistant professor of neurology.
"Older participants, men and African Americans were more likely to become cognitively impaired than those who were younger, female and Caucasian," she added.
Roe described the findings as providing more evidence that scientists can detect Alzheimer's disease years before memory loss and cognitive decline become apparent.
"We can better predict future cognitive impairment when we combine biomarkers with patient characteristics. Knowing how accurate biomarkers are is important if we are going to some day be able to treat Alzheimer's before symptoms and slow or prevent the disease," she said.
Clinical trials are already underway at Washington University and elsewhere to determine if treatments prior to symptoms can prevent or delay inherited forms of Alzheimer's disease. Reliable biomarkers for Alzheimer's should one day make it possible to test the most successful treatments in the much more common sporadic forms of Alzheimer's.
The study, supported in part by the National Institute on Aging, appears in Neurology.