Test helps detect neurological damage caused by gluten sensitivity

A new diagnostic test leading to the earlier detection of neurological damage caused by sensitivity to gluten is being offered at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in a UK NHS first.

The new TG6 test checks for the presence of the anti-transglutaminase-6 (TG6) antibody in patients presenting with neurological problems thus making a link with gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease as the possible cause of the neurological dysfunction. 

This is significant as recent research led by Professor Marios Hadjivassiliou, consultant neurologist at the Trust and published in the Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology Journal, showed that two-thirds of newly diagnosed coeliac disease patients had evidence of damage or loss in key sensory areas of the brain even though they had no previous diagnosis or history of neurological problems. 

Furthermore, patients who were found to have the anti-transglutaminase-6 (TG6) antibody had notably higher levels of damage in healthy brain cells in specific regions of the brain compared to those without TG6 antibodies. The test could help hundreds of patients to get vital, earlier diagnosis and treatment of conditions like gluten ataxia.

This could be critical as symptoms such as clumsiness, inability to walk steadily, and a tendency to stumble can be reversed or prevented if patients diagnosed early with gluten ataxia follow a strict-gluten free diet. Ultimately, this could be the difference between living with a permanent disability.

Professor Marios Hadjivassiliou, who is a leading authority on gluten-related neurological problems and first defined gluten ataxia in the 1990s, said: “We are delighted to be the first NHS Trust in the country to be offering patients this new diagnostic test which detects the presence of the TG6 antibody in patients with neurological presentations and in patients with newly diagnosed coeliac disease. 

“Gluten ataxia is the second commonest cause of ataxia and affects up to 25% of people diagnosed with coeliac disease. There is often a ten-year delay between the diagnosis of coeliac disease, at the age of 43, and the diagnosis of gluten ataxia at the age of 53. The good news is that this test provides clinicians with an early opportunity to detect gluten ataxia. Once identified, a strict gluten-free diet should be advocated.”

Over 600 patients with gluten ataxia have been treated at the specialist Sheffield Ataxia Centre, Royal Hallamshire Hospital.