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Spinal tap may predict Alzheimer’s years ahead


5 Star



Spinal tap may predict Alzheimer’s years ahead

Our Review Summary

This story is a good example of what an independent expert’s perspective can bring to a piece.



Why This Matters

Stories about predictive tests for Alzheimer’s Disease may play with the emotions of affected families.  This story appropriately evaluated evidence, so that the current state of this research – what it might mean and what it does not yet mean – was crystal clear.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No discussion of costs.  Yes, we know that it’s too early to use this in clinical settings, but the story makes the case that this builds on research following patients for as long as 12 years.  Any predictive test would hold appeal for many people – so cost ramifications are important to discuss even at this early stage. Both tests are available at the present time so that with a little bit of digging, the costs could have been provided.

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


We’ll give the story a satisfactory grade for providing context for the projected benefits of the test:

“A new study suggests that biomarkers found in cerebrospinal fluid (fluid that surrounds the spinal cord and brain and acts as a protective cushion) could predict who would develop Alzheimer’s disease 90% of the time among patients with mild cognitive impairment, a condition characterized by measurable memory problems.

Knowing which patient with mild cognitive impairment patients may go on to develop Alzheimer’s is vital information for researchers, who are looking for treatments for the fatal brain disease.  The current thinking is that interventions will be most effective when given to a patient as early as possible.”

But the story is quick to note that it’s too early to use this as a diagnostic tool in clinical settings.

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


The story did make several stabs at touching on harms, reporting:

“Some of the participants, who were originally found to be stable with mild cognitive impairment after about five years, went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease during the longer follow-up.  That suggests that a five-year follow-up period is not long enough to determine how well biomarkers can predict which patients will develop Alzheimer’s disease, researchers say.”

And it did end with this:

“As scientists gain more insight into predicting Alzheimer’s, aging adults may struggle with the question of whether they want to know their risk,  especially since there’s still no cure.  Some people want to enroll in clinical trials as soon as they start showing symptoms; others would rather be ignorant of their status since there is no cure.”

We think these could have been framed more clearly as potential harms, but we’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt on this one.

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


The story did an adequate job explaining what the study found, what it might mean, but what it does not yet mean.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


There was no disease-mongering in the story.  In fact, it explained that “not everyone with this condition is a good candidate for an Alzheimer’s trial.”

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


One independent expert’s comments added needed perspective to the findings.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


That independent expert added this important reminder:

“What I tell people is: If they’re worried about their thinking abilities, that they should make an appointment with a neuropsychology or a neurologist to get an evaluation,” Brinkman says. “The way we diagnose Alzheimer’s disease is by evaluating the behavior and the risk factor medical profile, not by looking at biological markers at this point.”

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


Again, the independent expert’s perspective was important:

“When these sorts of studies get published, Brickman and other doctors get phone calls from aging adults wondering whether they should be getting spinal taps to assess their risk.  But it’s too early to use this as a diagnostic tool in clinical settings, says Brickman. Down the road, the “fantasy” is that asymptomatic people will be able to get a biomarker test to determine whether they’ll one day get Alzheimer’s, but that’s not possible right now, he adds.”

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story was clear that:

  • the new research builds on prior published research
  • the new study is the longest clinical followup of people who begin with mild cognitive impairment

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


It’s clear that the story did not rely solely or largely on a news release.

Total Score: 9 of 10 Satisfactory


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