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Can Ant Venom Detect Early-Stage Alzheimer’s?

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The race to find a test that can reveal Alzheimer’s at an early stage has been heating up for years, with several blood tests leading the field (at least four of which we’ve told you about in this newsletter). However, Chinese scientists believe they’ve developed a test that surpasses all other contenders. Best of all, their test doesn’t require a needle and a blood draw. Instead of blood, this breakthrough test relies on venom from the humble ant. Here’s the surprising story… Trying to develop an early Alzheimer’s diagnostic test has led scientists down many paths. In this newsletter, we’ve reported on tests that detect changes in the blood, in speech patterns and sense of smell, in the eyes, tear fluid, as well as in exhaled breath, in kidney function, and much more. And while it looks likely a blood test will eventually emerge successful as an early Alzheimer’s detection tool, which one will come out on top remains to be seen. But now, a group of Chinese scientists believe they’ve uncovered the future winner all thanks to an ant.

Ant Venom’s Amazing Secret 

Researchers have been working on an Alzheimer’s detection test based on a chemical, produced by some ants, known as ant venom. When an ant bites, it releases the chemical formic acid onto skin. Along with the pinch from their mandibles, this causes the burning, itching symptoms of an ant bite. Some people are allergic to formic acid, which can trigger a reaction in your body beyond the site of the ant bite, but surprisingly, humans also produce formic acid. Our bodies produce formic acid in very small amounts as part of our normal metabolic processes, and it can be found in our urine. After examining previous research on formic acid and its sister chemical formaldehyde, scientists at Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, felt formic acid, which is a byproduct of formaldehyde metabolism, would be able to accurately identify patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They recruited 574 adults and divided them into five groups. One group had normal cognition while the other four groups ranged from those who felt their memories weren’t as sharp as they used to be, to those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers analyzed the participants’ formic acid levels through their urine as well as looked at their blood samples and performed psychological evaluations.

A Sensitive Biomarker 

Their findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience last November, showed that urinary formic acid levels were significantly increased in all four groups compared to the healthy controls. Levels also correlated with the degree of cognitive decline. In other words, as Alzheimer’s disease progressed, urinary formic acid levels showed an overall upward trend. They also showed an upward trend with increasingly poorer results on commonly used verbal and written tests used to screen for cognitive impairment. Urinary formic acid also performed either just as well or better than a range of blood biomarkers that are under investigation for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. This suggests formic acid could act as a sensitive biomarker not just for Alzheimer’s disease but for early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The authors concluded by writing, “Urinary formic acid showed an excellent sensitivity for early Alzheimer’s screening. The detection of urine biomarkers of Alzheimer’s is convenient and cost-effective, and it should be performed during routine physical examinations of the elderly.” But as accurate as formic acid was in detecting Alzheimer’s disease in this study, researchers found there was a simple way to make it even better.

Combination Of Biomarkers A Bigger Success 

When the researchers analyzed urinary formic acid levels in combination with blood-based Alzheimer’s biomarkers, they achieved even more specific results. They were able to not only accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, but even more accurately predict what stage of the disease a patient was experiencing, including very early stage Alzheimer’s disease, before symptoms become pronounced. This makes sense that the more biomarkers a patient has, the more readily a doctor can diagnose the disease and even better identify its stage.

My Takeaway 

While this urine test for screening for early Alzheimer’s disease is not yet available to the general public, it will certainly be a step up from our current routine Alzheimer’s screening tools—almost all of which have several challenges. At present, these include positron emission tomography (PET) brain scans, which are expensive and expose you to radiation. There are also those blood biomarker tests that I told you about earlier which require invasive blood draws but can detect the disease in early stages. Then there’s lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to obtain cerebrospinal fluid which can reveal its own set of biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease, but this test is painful. This urine test will not only be easy to administer—perhaps even produced for use at home eventually — it’s comfortable, affordable, and fast. If this urine test turns out to be as effective as the researchers are claiming, then this will be the first early Alzheimer’s detection test available for wide-spread use.

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