A quicker way to diagnose dementia?

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A new project aiming to reduce the time to a dementia diagnosis has been given a $750,000 grant by Australia’s largest private hospitals operator, Ramsay Health Care.

The Ramsay Hospital Research Foundation (RHRF) is backing the MiND program, which is seeking to develop a blood test to help distinguish neurological and neurodegenerative illnesses from psychiatric conditions. 

Ramsay Health Care psychiatrists Professor Malcolm Hopwood and Professor Philip Mitchell are working with the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s neuropsychiatry team to investigate the clinical utility of a brain protein in people with mood and anxiety disorders. 

“Accurate diagnosis in mental health is a key part in improving our care,” said Professor Hopwood, who is Ramsay’s Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne. 

“This research explores a real opportunity to identify those patients with depression and brain injury or neurodegeneration earlier and avoid unhelpful or inappropriate treatment.  

“Research partnerships like this one are clearly the way to progress and it’s great the RHRF have provided this opportunity.” 

The grant will allow the neuropsychiatry team’s work to extend into the private setting through the mood and anxiety disorders programs at Ramsay Clinic Albert Road, where Professor Hopwood is based, and Ramsay Clinic Northside in Sydney, where Professor Mitchell is the Director of Mood Disorders.  

The project is led by the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Clinical Director of Neuropsychiatry, Professor Dennis Velakoulis, who hopes to improve outcomes for patients and their families by finding a way to reduce the need for unnecessary expensive and time-consuming investigations.

The research is focused on testing for neurofilament light (NfL), a protein that maintains the structure of brain cells and is released into the cerebrospinal fluid and blood when damage occurs. 

However, elevated levels of the protein are not present in patients with mental illness, meaning the test could differentiate between people with these disorders and those with neurological conditions such as dementia. 

“The main aim of this work is to reduce the time taken to diagnose dementia,” Prof Velakoulis said. 

“People who have dementia in middle age will often have seen their doctors with depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders years before the diagnosis of dementia is made.”  

Such use of inexpensive blood biomarkers would make the test widely available for general practitioners (GPs) and specialists, said the program’s chief investigator, Dr Dhamidhu Eratne.

“In the same way a GP performs simple blood tests such as thyroid function tests to exclude thyroid problems as a cause for depression or cognitive symptoms, a blood NfL test could alert the GP to a neurological or neurodegenerative cause, rather than a primary psychiatric illness,” Dr Eratne said.  

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