How Does a Spinal Fluid Test Show Signs of Alzheimer's Disease?

Mar 01, 2024
Alzheimer’s disease is a common type of dementia that affects millions of Americans. Although it can’t be cured, early management is essential — and that means early detection is important, too. Here’s how spinal fluid tests can help.

More than 6 million Americans are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia responsible for one-third of all senior deaths in the United States. That’s more than breast and prostate cancer combined. While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, early detection can improve symptom management as well as quality of life.

Spinal fluid tests play a key role in early diagnosis of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. As a leading memory care practice in Glendale, Sun City West, and Phoenix, Arizona, The Marcann Group dedicates this post to a better understanding of how these tests work and the role they play in Alzheimer’s diagnosis and treatment.

Spinal fluid tests: Understanding the basics

Spinal fluid (cerebrospinal fluid or CSF) is a special liquid that bathes your central nervous system (CNS) — your brain and spinal cord. This fluid nourishes the CNS and helps remove wastes while providing some cushioning effect.

Because the fluid circulates freely around your brain and spine, it can contain trace substances helpful in diagnosing CNS problems, including infections and diseases that affect the brain or spinal cord (or both). To analyze the CSF, our physicians perform what’s known as a lumbar puncture — or, more commonly, a spinal tap.

A lumbar puncture is an outpatient procedure that uses a special needle to extract CSF from your spinal canal. Our doctors use diagnostic imaging to ensure accurate needle placement for greater safety and successful fluid extraction. The collected fluid is then analyzed in a lab.

Afterward, the puncture site is covered with a bandage, and you’ll remain lying down for a bit. You may have a mild headache for a few days, and the needle insertion site may be a bit sore.

How the test detects Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is associated with low levels of beta-amyloid proteins and high levels of tau proteins. Both proteins play roles in brain health, specifically in regard to nerve cell health and function.

By analyzing CSF obtained from a lumbar puncture, lab specialists evaluate the levels of these proteins to look for changes that could be associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, research shows CSF fluid can be extremely helpful in diagnosing dementia early.

However, current testing methods lack specificity, which means while they can detect changes associated with dementia, they can’t always differentiate between Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Our doctors use the results of CSF testing combined with other tests and assessments to make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment.

Learn more about Alzheimer’s detection and management

Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is a life-changing and startling experience. While there’s currently no cure, research is making significant strides in disease management. Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can help you or your loved one get the care they need to slow the progression of the disease and improve overall quality of life.

To learn more about the testing and treatment strategies we use to help manage Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, book an appointment online or over the phone with our team at The Marcann Group today.