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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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Signs of Alzheimer’s May Show Up Years Before Symptoms

Study: Signs of Disease Seen in Brains of People Who Don’t Have Alzheimer’s Yet
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 1, 2012 -- Amyloid protein plaques in the brain are a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. Now, new research shows that this plaque actually builds up gradually and causes subtle changes in memory and mental status even in some adults who are healthy.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Symptoms including serious memory loss, confusion, and mood changes that develop gradually and worsen with time.

Researchers from the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas looked at the brains of 137 healthy people aged 30 and 89 via PET scans. Participants were also tested for the APOE gene, which has been linked to increased Alzheimer’s disease risk.

The amount of beta-amyloid in brains increased with advancing age. About 20% of adults aged 60 and older had high levels of plaque in their brains. Those who had the highest levels of beta-amyloid in their brains had lower scores on tests of their memory, reasoning, and processing. People with greater amounts of amyloid were also more likely to be positive for the APOE gene, the study showed.

The findings are published in the journal Neurology.

Science Moving Toward Earlier Alzheimer’s Diagnosis and Treatment

Keith Black, MD, is the chairman of the department of neurosurgery and director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He reviewed the findings for WebMD.  Black says the new study supports the notion that changes in the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s disease may begin years, or even a decade, before a person has symptoms.

“Can we diagnose it at 60 rather than at 75, and can we intervene at early stages to slow disease progression so they don’t develop memory loss until age 95? This would be a therapeutic home run,” he says.

We are not there yet, but there are drugs and early screening tests in the pipeline, he says.

Dean Hartley, PhD, agrees. He is an associate professor of neurosciences and a neuroscience researcher at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. The new findings “take us closer to trying to find out when the disease begins, and then we can begin to follow the progression and start to look at drugs,” he says.

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