Early signs of dementia could be picked up by a simple blood test according to research conducted by Professor Dennis Velakoulis of the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the University of Melbourne.

Prof Velakoulis told the ABC 7:30 programme this week his research, conducted with Dr Dhamidu Eratne, could enable doctors to reach an early diagnosis for dementia by analysing blood samples and look for high levels of the Neurofilament Light (NFL) protein. High levels of NFL are a sign of dementia as they indicate a brain trauma and the presence of dead brain cells.

Currently the detection of the NFL protein is made from spinal fluid samples, but Prof Velakoulis’s research suggests that the diagnosis could be reached by analysing a patient’s blood samples. The process would also enable doctors to quickly distinguish dementia from mental health problems such as anxiety and depression which show similar symptoms but do not produce higher levels of NFL in the blood.

“There are many situations that general practitioners and specialists face where it’s unclear if someone has a mental health or psychiatric disorder, like depression,” Prof Velakoulis said.

Prof Velakoulis is the consultant neuropsychiatrist and, since 2001, the director of the Neuropsychiatry Unit, Royal Melbourne Hospital. He is also a professorial research fellow at the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne.