Dr. Mark Mapstone ’89, a neuropsychologist at University of Rochester, is in the international spotlight as the lead author of a groundbreaking study that used specialized blood testing to accurately predict Alzheimer’s disease.
Published in the journal Nature Medicine, the first-of-its-kind study tests the level of 10 different fat molecules (lipids) in the blood of patients in order to make predictions about the onset of the disease, even before any symptoms occur. The study showed that the blood testing proved to be more than 90 percent accurate, making for a monumental discovery with major implications about battling Alzheimer’s early on.
“We really hope that this testing will be able to help people,” Mapstone says. “We still have a lot of work to do, but we want to make this available to people as soon as possible to help improve quality of life.”
The study, which drew worldwide media attention, including coverage from CNN, was carried out by researchers from University of Rochester, Georgetown University and University of California, Irvine. The research team tested lipid levels in hundreds of patients from the Rochester, N.Y., area and Irving, Calif., who were in their 70s.
Compared with healthy patients, those with lower levels of lipids showed a higher likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s or a preceding condition known as amnestic mild cognitive impairment.
Mapstone says that the immediate implications of the study’s findings show that with Alzheimer’s disease, decline appears to begin well before people begin showing symptoms.
“From here, we can develop new drugs, or give existing drugs to patients earlier on to perhaps affect the course of the tide,” he says. “Using this screening tool, we will know that patients will get symptoms and then we can give drugs and therapy to see if we can delay those symptoms.”
A commercialized blood test could take more than two years to prepare before hitting the market. For researchers, the next step is to test people in their 40s or 50s. Mapstone says scientists can now use the study to extend the research into other areas of neurodegenerative disease, such as Parkinson’s disease.
For Mapstone, he says his experiences at HWS have been a significant influence on his life, both academically and professionally.
“At HWS, I developed an interest in both psychology and biology, putting them together toward my eventual study of neuroscience,” he says. “It started with the exposure to specific courses and guidance from Professor of Psychology Jeffrey Greenspon, and other faculty as well. Those experiences would develop my interest in understanding the cogitative thinking process, and continued to develop during my graduate training.”
Mapstone also credits his time working as a researcher at MIT, which led up to a very focused interested in degenerative diseases in older adults.
He says that for the next generation of researchers at HWS, students should remember that in scholarly investigation, every once in a while the findings may be a surprise.
“You have to be open and prepared for whatever comes your way,” Mapstone says. “You learn through a liberal arts education to be open to those experiences.”
The author of numerous scholarly articles, Mapstone is an associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Department of Neurology and at the Center for Neural Development & Disease. He earned a B.S. in psychology from Hobart College, a master of arts in psychology from Boston University and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Northwestern University The Feinberg School of Medicine. He is the recipient of the 2006 Excellence in Research Incentive Program Award, University of Rochester.