Potential to urine test for dementia discovered

Current methods for screening people for dementia are expensive and invasive, but there’s potential for urine tests to be developed, a study has shown. Researchers at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Affiliated Sixth People's Hospital in China have discovered the level of formic acid in urine could be an Alzheimer’s indicator.

It’s hoped urine and blood tests could be developed as a way to identify cognitive problems early on in a similar way to other conditions, such as cancer. These methods would replace CT and PET scans of the brain, which are not just expensive but also expose the patient to radiation.

Another method currently used is a spinal tap, which is both invasive and uncomfortable. Being able to test bodily fluids would be a lot more straightforward, but more needs to be understood about how to make it work. Knowing the potential is there, however, is the first step.

Sian Gregory, research information manager at the Alzheimer's Society, said: “This is an exciting discovery as it offers a potential new way of detecting Alzheimer's disease, that is less invasive and more cost-effective than current methods of diagnosing the disease.”

The Chinese study arranged 574 participants into five groups, ranging from those with average thinking skills to people with more serious cognitive impairment. While the mild memory problems found in the fourth group can lead to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, those in the fifth cohort already had the condition.

Comparing the control group to those with varying degrees of Alzheimer’s showed those with the condition had higher levels of formic acid in their urine. The body produces formic acid from formaldehyde, large amounts of which can clump together to form harmful proteins in the brain.

Dr Francesco Tamagnini, a dementia expert and neuroscientist from the University of Reading, told MailOnline: “For Alzheimer's, one of the holy grails, other than finding a cure and improving people's quality of life, is to be able to screen people with something like a urine or blood test.

“Just as we use a blood test to look for prostate cancer, or a mammogram to look for breast cancer, we need a simple, painless test to show early signs of dementia, even before the onset of memory loss, which can then be followed up later with scans or a spinal tap if needed.

“However, we need more research before we find [out] whether a urine test really will work in practice.”