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New brain test may help diagnose early-stage Alzheimer's disease

Category: General Health

Over the last few years, there have been great strides made in developing diagnostic testing options for patients with Alzheimer's disease. Recently, a new study has found that an innovative brain scan may help doctors determine whether a person with memory loss has brain variances that can predispose him or her to the debilitating condition.

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, irreversible and fatal brain disease that destroys memory and thinking skills. The condition accounts for the majority of dementia cases and is the seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S. It is estimated that more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's.

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but treatment for symptoms combined with proper care and support can make life better for those suffering from the condition. For that reason, early diagnosis is crucial.

"Having an early diagnosis also helps families plan for the future, make living arrangements, take care of financial and legal matters, and develop support networks," says the National Institute of Aging. "In addition, an early diagnosis can provide greater opportunities for people to get involved in clinical trials."

Norbert Schuff, with the University of California and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and his colleagues recently published a report detailing the development of the Alzheimer's disease-related brain scan known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which has been proven to be a more effective testing method than a traditional MRI in detecting changes in brain chemistry.

In the study, the researchers monitored 76 healthy individuals aged 20 to 80 who underwent DTI and MRI brain scanning. Participants were also given verbal tests and visual perception exams.

After comparing brain scans to the results of the tests, the research team found that changes in DTI imaging better explained declines in memory than did the traditional MRI. They also discovered that mean diffusivity in the hippocampus, the region of the brain involved in Alzheimer's disease, better predicted spatial and verbal memory performance, especially in those at a high-risk age.

"Our findings show this type of brain scan appears to be a better way to measure how healthy the brain is in people who are experiencing memory loss," said study author Giovanni Carlesimo. "This might help doctors when trying to differentiate between normal aging and diseases like Alzheimer's."

He added that DTI, along with MRI, may soon help scientists discover why a person experiences memory decline.

Meanwhile, late last year, researchers from the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden discovered a substance in spinal fluid that they believe can be used to diagnose Alzheimer's disease.

The substance, known as Abeta16, is a beta-amyloid protein that is particularly prevalent in the formation of plaques that build up on the brain, which play a significant role in the development of Alzhemier's disease. Two independent studies have found that Alzheimer's patients have higher levels of the protein in their spinal fluid than do healthy individuals.

"The discovery of the new protein could be used to diagnose patients with Alzheimer's and also help determine which medications are most effective for the disease," says biochemist Erik Portelius, the author of the thesis.

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