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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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Brain Scan Detects Early Alzheimer's Changes

By Elizabeth Tracey , MS
WebMD Health News

April 7, 2000 (Ithaca, N.Y.) --The discovery that specific, small areas in the brain shrink as the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease begin -- even before symptoms are noticeable -- may help researchers develop ways to treat, or even prevent, the disease.

A study conducted with a scanning technique called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) pinpoints three of these areas. The study appears in the April issue of the journal Annals of Neurology.

Marilyn S. Albert, PhD, one of the study authors, says that the areas of the brain she and colleagues found to be smaller are all involved with memory and how we form and store memories.

"We are trying to solve the problem of how to predict who will develop Alzheimer's disease within several years' time," Albert says. "These studies are beginning to tell us which brain regions are involved in the development and progression of Alzheimer's disease, how those regions relate to disease symptoms, and the order of involvement. This might translate into targets for early intervention." Albert is in the department of psychiatry/gerontology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The investigators found these changes by comparing initial MRI scans of elderly people who continued to have normal mental function over three years with scans of subjects who developed Alzheimer's disease during that time. The MRIs were extremely accurate at identifying which people would have which fate.

Albert tells WebMD that this does not mean MRIs, which are currently readily available, can be used to tell a person whether he or she will develop Alzheimer's. "People should not send me their MRIs to look at!" she says.

However, she thinks that it may be possible to develop her research method into a tool that could be used in early diagnosis ? but that will require years of additional work.

"This approach is not ready to be used clinically, but it is very encouraging and theoretically does provide a way to predict who will develop Alzheimer's," Albert says.

A measure like the MRI readings would be extremely helpful to researchers who are trying to develop treatments to stop early Alzheimer's disease from progressing. Sharon A. Brangman, MD, tells WebMD that this would be a major improvement.

"The disease varies tremendously from person to person, and what we ask is whether treatment has delayed the progress of the disease," she says. A reliable MRI measurement could provide a better and more accurate way to tell whether a drug is working or not. Brangman is associate professor of medicine and chief of the division of geriatric medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.

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