New Technologies Spot Alzheimer’s Beginnings

June 20, 2005

Even without a cure, early detection is important, experts say…

Two high-tech brain scans and a new blood test can identify Alzheiner’s linked neurological changes years before actual symptoms arise, researchers report.

Besides allowing individuals to begin drug therapy early and not wait for the future, these early -detection tests might someday help those take full advantage of preventive therapies.

“We already have medications coming down the pike that already change the course of the disease, ” explained William Thies, Director of Medical and Scientific Affairs at the Alzheimer’s Association. “As those medications become available, there’s going to be a tremendous need to identify Alzheiner’s disease earlier and earlier”.

Three studes outlining the new screening technologies were presented at the Alzheimer’s International Conference on Prevention of Dementia, in Washington, D.C.

One study used positron emission tonography (Pet) Scans hooked up to a specially designed, MRI computer program. That program automatically tracks glucose metabolism in an area of the brain called hippocampus, a key memory center.

“If there’s reduced [metabolic] activity there, you have cognitive problems, and are at risk of developing Alzheimer’s.” The technology grew out of the work from a team who first discovered hippocampal shrinkage to be a harmful indicator of Alzheimer’s disease.

Using this computerized scanning technology, the NYU researchers followed 53 healthy participants between 54 and 80 years of age for between 10 and 24 years in a first -of-its-kind, long term experiment. Participants received PET scans at the beginning of the study and then at the three-and-six year mark.

Six of the participants did go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Before this, we didn’t have any idicators or biomarkers, and now we can finally know what to look for and examine this further in clinical research.”

Early detection methods are much further advanced than their development than the blood-based screen. “But obviously, the blood screen is much easier and requires less machinery and fits much easier into the physician’s routine.

In the absence of effective treatments, however, does early detection really make sense? Studies now believe that it does.

The impact of the current medications we have is likely to be biggest in the scope of the disease. And Alzheiner’s disease is so dislocating for families–knowing ahead of time allows you to plan better for the future in a number of ways. Waiting until symptoms appear–and competency is impaired–may be too late, the affected individual is taken out of the mix, and the family is left trying to interpret what they would want.

The decades long push for effective, preventive therapies may produce fruit. The advent of powerful drugs that fight Alzheimer’s will make early detection even more important than it is now. At the same time, advances in imaging technology are fueling this research boom, allowing us to locate and target exactly those areas of the brain most affected by the disease.

For much more on Alzheimer’s disease, visit the Alzheimer’s Association.

Source: 6/19, HealthDay News, E.J. Mundell.