Alzheimer's Is Much More Than Just One Disease, Says New Research

'This study is not the end, it's a start,' the researchers noted. Atthapon Raksthaput/Shutterstock

Classifying diseases is much more than a label we slap onto a set of symptoms. It can also help shape the way we perceive and even treat certain conditions.

A new study has called for a new approach to classify patients with Alzheimer’s, arguing it’s not simply one disease and instead can be divided into at least six factions. By splitting up the condition into more subgroups, the researchers hope that medical professionals will be able to deliver better, more personalized treatments for people whose condition doesn't necessarily fit into a one-size-fits-all category.

"Alzheimer's, like breast cancer, is not one disease," lead author Shubhabrata Mukherjee, research assistant professor in general internal medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in a statement. "I think a good drug might fail in a clinical trial because not all the subjects have the same kind of Alzheimer's."

As published in the Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry, a collaboration of around 20 scientists from the US have analyzed data on 4,050 people with late-onset Alzheimer's disease and looked at how they scored in four different domains: memory, executive functioning, language, and visuospatial functioning.

Around 39 percent of people had relatively even scores across all four domains. The next largest group, 27 percent of people, had memory scores that were notably lower than the other groups. The next group, 13 percent, had lower language scores and another group, 12 percent, had lower visuospatial functioning scores. A small group of just 3 percent had low executive functioning scores, while a further 6 percent had lower scores in two different domains.   

Not only that but the team also used genetic data to see if they could find solid biological distinctions between the groups. They discovered a total of 33 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP), specific locations throughout the genome, that were associated with one of the subgroups.

They also discovered that another subgroup, the memory-related group, had a strong association with variations of the APOE gene, which is known to be linked to developing Alzheimer's disease among people with European descent.

While world leaders have committed to the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's Disease by 2025, this very much remains a pipe dream for now. Current forecasts estimate that the number of people with Alzheimer’s in the US will balloon from 5.7 million in 2018 to 14 million by 2050. With this new framework in place, it’s hoped researchers can find better solutions and potential treatments for this debilitating disease. 

"This study is not the end, it's a start," added Mukherjee.

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