Researchers identify biomarker for diagnosing vascular dementia

Feb. 23, 2023
Signaling in the bloodstream could make it easier for doctors to distinguish between most common sources of dementia.

Measuring a key blood molecule may help doctors diagnose whether or how much impaired blood flow to a patient’s brain is contributing to dementia or cognitive problems, according to a new study led by a UCLA Health researcher.

In new research published February 23 in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association, researchers found that patients with higher levels of placental growth factor (PlGF) – a key molecule involved in the formation of new blood vessels, or angiogenesis – were more likely to have cognitive impairment or evidence of brain injury.

The study represents some of the first validation results reported by a NIH-funded consortium of academic medical centers working to identify biomarkers associated with vascular drivers behind cognitive impairment to help inform diagnosis and treatment. The consortium, known as MarkVCID, was formed in 2016 after researchers recognized they needed a better handle on precisely how vascular brain injury was contributing to dementia.

Researchers identified signaling involved in angiogenesis as potential biomarkers, theorizing that the body may respond to damaged small blood vessels in the brain with intensified efforts to grow more. For this study, researchers focused on just one of those signals, PlGF, which has previously been associated with cerebral blood flow regulation. Data also gathered by the consortium had suggested this may be a useful biomarker for identifying patients with cognitive impairment and dementia due to vascular brain injury.

At UCLA and four other research sites, 335 patients underwent brain imaging, cognitive testing and blood collection. Researchers found those in the top quartile for PlGF measurement were three times as likely to have cognitive impairment or dementia compared to those in the bottom quartile. Every unit increase in total PlGF in the bloodstream was also associated with a 22% increase in the likelihood of having cognitive impairment and a 16% increase in the likelihood of having imaging evidence of cerebral small vessel disease.

UCLA release