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Brain scans can detect Alzheimer signs

LOS ANGELES – UCLA researchers say they can, for the first time, use sophisticated brain scans to detect the precursors to Alzheimer’s disease before any symptoms begin, the school announced two weeks ago.

Yet doctors are still not able to predict a brain’s progression into Alzheimer’s disease by measuring subtle changes in brain structure over time, it was also reported.

Researchers tracked 169 people over three years who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or MCI, a condition that causes memory problems greater than those expected for an individual’s age – but not the personality or cognitive changes that define Alzheimer’s.

They discovered that after three years, those who eventually were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease showed a 10 to 30 percent greater atrophy in two specific locations within the brain’s hippocampus, a part of the brain known to be critical for long-term memory.

In another study, researchers looked at 10 cognitively-normal elderly people and compared their brain scans with those of seven other elderly people who were later diagnosed with MCI and then Alzheimer’s disease. Again, they found that the group that went to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s showed the same pattern of atrophy in the same regions of the hippocampus.

Researchers said that excess atrophy is present in cognitively normal individuals who are predestined to develop MCI. Further, that atrophy ultimately cascades across the entire hippocampus of the brain, leading to Alzheimer’s disease.

“We feel this is an important finding because it is living humans,” said UCLA assistant clinical professor of neurology Liana Apostolova. “Now we have a sensitive technique that shows the ‘invisible’ – that is the progression of a disease before the symptoms appear.”

Apostolova said the degree of atrophy is not easily visible in the brain scans and that very sensitive techniques are required to show its progression.

“We can’t see the pathologic changes, but we clearly see the neurodegenerative atrophy associated with MCI and AD, and how it spreads through the hippocampus,” she said. “This is exactly what a biomarker, being an indirect measure of disease progression, is supposed to do.”


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