The brain cells of patients with Alzheimer's disease contain large amounts of a newly discovered protein molecule that is not found in the cells of normal people or in cells of people with other neurological diseases, a team of researchers from New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine has found.

The discovery opens the possibility of developing a reliable diagnostic test for the intellectually crippling and usually fatal disease. Such a test would be valuable because the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, which may progress over many years, are hard to diagnose.

There is no specific treatment for the disease, but the ability to identify victims early is expected to help in the search for the cause and for effective treatments.

The protein was found in samples of brain tissue taken at autopsy, but the scientists, led by Benjamin L. Wolozin, say their method of detecting the protein may work on cerebrospinal fluid, the liquid that bathes the brain and spinal column and which can be sampled with a spinal tap.

The function and chemical nature of the protein are unknown, although high concentrations are found only in the brain cells known to be abnormal in Alzheimer patients.