Brain Scan Detects Early Alzheimer's Changes
WebMD News Archive
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
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
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
"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.