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Spinal Fluid Test May Diagnose Alzheimer’s


3 Star

Spinal Fluid Test May Diagnose Alzheimer’s

Our Review Summary

This story does not explore the potential implications of Alzheimer’s Disease testing to the extent that the (much longer) New York Times story on this study does.  It also downplays the relative lack of specificity with this approach – that up to a third may be falsely labeled as having the disease. This is a huge question mark hanging over this approach. 

But the story does not try to run ahead of the actual evidence provided by the study. It would have been helpful to explain how this test is likely to be used by researchers testing experimental treatments.

It was the only one of the three related stories we reviewed that clearly stated the financial ties between the study authors and a company developing the test that was studied.



Why This Matters

Clinicians are likely to eventually offer this sort of test to improve the confidence of diagnoses of Alzheimer’s Disease in people who are already experiencing serious memory problems. This story refrains from speculating about screening healthy people.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not mention direct costs or potential financial consequences of such a test.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


This story appropriately characterizes this spinal fluid test as something that could help improve the confidence of Alzheimer’s diagnoses. It would have been helpful to point out that the test is most likely to be used first by researchers testing potential treatments. The story points out that this sort of test could be useful for screening once effective treatments are available. However, the story should have been more clear that the test as presented in this study, if used in isolation, could lead to many people being incorrectly labeled as having Alzheimer’s Disease.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

While noting that many people are reluctant to undergo spinal taps, this story includes only comments that downplay the potential harms, including pain or bleeding. The story fails to discuss the potentially serious consequences of using this sort of test before symptoms appear, such as insurance or employment discrimination.

Finally, the story downplays that importance of the relative lack of specificity of the method. While testing of apparently healthy older people for the presence of the markers may be appealing, the reality is that based on the study up to a third of those may be falsely labeled as having the disease. This may subject a significant number of older Americans to the potential side effects of newer treatments to say nothing of the financial impact of a third of the population in this age group.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


This story provides readers with key information about the study results and appropriately characterizes the study as offering an advance in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. It also notes that this study does not explain why many participants with normal memories had Alzheimer’s-like test results. It mentions that it may be that these people may be showing early changes before the appearance of symptoms or that some people may be able to tolerate such changes without developing symptoms. This sort of explanation helps readers avoid jumping to the premature conclusion that this test predicts Alzheimer’s Disease in healthy people. The story provides a balanced view, noting both positive and negative aspects of the research report.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The story does not exaggerate the prevalence or consequences of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The study quotes the author of an editorial that also appears in the issue of the Archives of Neurology that carries the study article. The story notes that the study author who is quoted developed the experimental test and works for a biotech company. It also points out that the study was funded by a partnership that includes private interests.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not tell readers either that other researchers are working on similar tests that use spinal fluid or that brain scans are also being developed that may be able to detect changes associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story points out that most clinicians are not able to provide this sort of test and that at least one expert says that specialized testing centers would need to be developed.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

This story summarizes the results of the study without inflating the novelty of the approach. However, it would have been helpful to provide some background pointing out that there have been other studies that also explored the use of spinal fluid tests to aid Alzheimer’s diagnosis and that proposed guidelines already include using spinal fluid tests to help clinicians identify the likely cause of memory problems in patients.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story does not appear to be based on a news release.

Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory


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