Background: Recent Alzheimer's disease (AD) research has focused on finding biomarkers to identify disease at the pre-clinical stage of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), allowing treatment to be initiated before irreversible damage occurs. Many studies have examined brain imaging or cerebrospinal fluid but there is also growing interest in blood biomarkers. The Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) has generated data on 190 plasma analytes in 566 individuals with MCI, AD or normal cognition. We conducted independent analyses of this dataset to identify plasma protein signatures predicting pre-clinical AD.
Methods and findings: We focused on identifying signatures that discriminate cognitively normal controls (n = 54) from individuals with MCI who subsequently progress to AD (n = 163). Based on p value, apolipoprotein E (APOE) showed the strongest difference between these groups (p = 2.3 × 10(-13)). We applied a multivariate approach based on combinatorial optimization ((α,β)-k Feature Set Selection), which retains information about individual participants and maintains the context of interrelationships between different analytes, to identify the optimal set of analytes (signature) to discriminate these two groups. We identified 11-analyte signatures achieving values of sensitivity and specificity between 65% and 86% for both MCI and AD groups, depending on whether APOE was included and other factors. Classification accuracy was improved by considering "meta-features," representing the difference in relative abundance of two analytes, with an 8-meta-feature signature consistently achieving sensitivity and specificity both over 85%. Generating signatures based on longitudinal rather than cross-sectional data further improved classification accuracy, returning sensitivities and specificities of approximately 90%.
Conclusions: Applying these novel analysis approaches to the powerful and well-characterized ADNI dataset has identified sets of plasma biomarkers for pre-clinical AD. While studies of independent test sets are required to validate the signatures, these analyses provide a starting point for developing a cost-effective and minimally invasive test capable of diagnosing AD in its pre-clinical stages.