SCIENTISTS with Scottish universities have identified a new way to detect signs of motor neurone disease (MND).

Researchers from the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh have discovered how to detect signs of the illness in brain tissue with more sensitivity than currently used tests.

Using a molecule known as “aptamer", which has already helped to revolutionise cancer diagnostics, the team has successfully applied it to MND detection in brain tissue samples.

The TDP-43 aptamer is able to identify damaged cell proteins in brain tissue samples that can indicate MND before the cells malfunction – when symptoms would start to appear and the state at which current tools can detect signs of the illness.

Dr Holly Spence, co-author of the study from the University of Aberdeen, said: “Our findings have implications for early diagnostics and intervention prior to symptom onset in MND.

“With better ability to detect disease we might be able to diagnose people with MND earlier, when therapeutic drugs might be much more effective.”

The research was led by Dr Jenna Gregory, who has predicted the latest breakthrough could help trigger a step-change in MND research.

She explained: “This tool ‘targets’ the disease protein and allows us to see where toxic clumps are building up in the body.

“It can do this for much lower amounts of disease proteins, and with greater accuracy than ever before. This could be a game-changer for MND research, diagnostics and treatment.”

MND, also known as ALS, affected around 5000 people in the UK and is caused by the accumulation of certain proteins in the brain that clump together, causing the cells to gradually stop working and, as the disease progresses, it impairs movement, thinking and breathing, and worsens over time.

Early detection of these proteins in people with MND remains a major challenge to successful treatments.

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The improved accuracy of this new detection tool revealed these proteins can start to make small clumps in the brains of people with MND before those brain regions show symptoms.

Jessica Lee, the director of research with the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, spoke about her excitement at the new technology.

The foundation was set up by former Scottish rugby player Doddie Weir (below), who died from MND after helping to raise millions for research.

The National: Doddie Weir at a fundraising drive for his motor neurone disease foundation

Lee said: “Motor neurone disease is a devastating condition for which there are currently no effective treatments and long delays in diagnosis.

“Due to advancements in research, many potential treatments are currently being explored in the lab and clinical trials.

“However, we now need robust biomarkers of disease to support the evaluation of these treatments and to speed up diagnosis, so that treatments can be started earlier in disease progression.

“This exciting new technology holds promise to do just that.”