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MRI-Like Technique Spots Alzheimer's Plaques for the First Time

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WebMD Health News

Nov. 22, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Researchers may have moved a step closer to understanding one of the central mysteries of Alzheimer's disease -- and that is the role of plaques, those small clots of tissue debris found in the brains of those who suffer from the disease.

For the first time, a team of researchers has found a way to see the plaques using an X-ray-like technique known as magnetic resonance microscopy (MRM). Previously, plaques were only viewable after Alzheimer's patients had died, by taking small pieces of brain tissue and viewing them under a microscope.

The research, conducted at Duke University and published in today's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is but a small step towards eventual use of the technique on live humans. So far, the technique has only been tested on brain samples of Alzheimer's patients who have died, and the next step is to perfect its use on mice. But even that is still a year or two away.

"Mice can fit into the very high field magnet [used in the Duke study]," says Michael Weiner, MD, director of the magnetic resonance unit at the San Francisco VA Hospital, "so the techniques are not so difficult to translate to a mouse brain." But Weiner says translation to human subjects won't be so easy.

Still, the apparently long road of this research could answer one of the most baffling questions about Alzheimer's disease: what role do plaques play? They are considered the 'hallmark' of the brain-wasting disorder, but no one is sure why. Do they cause the disease? Or are they result of it? The researchers hope that by being able to "see" the disease progressing, they can answer that question, or, at the very least, can use the technique to guide the development of new Alzheimer's drugs.

"It's possible that this could lead to an important technological breakthrough," Weiner says. But he cautions "it's not an easy leap" to apply it to the many people with Alzheimer's disease.

Vital Information:

  • Plaques are small clots of tissue debris found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients that, until now, could only be seen during an autopsy.
  • A new technique using magnetic resonance microscopy (MRM), an X-ray-like technique, may allow physicians to view the plaques.
  • Although the application in humans is still far off, researchers hope the new tool will help advance the understanding of Alzheimer's, possibly answering the question of whether the plaques are the cause, or just symptoms, of the disease.

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