Catching Alzheimer's in the act

By Morgan McCorkle

(Medical Xpress) -- Like a thief hidden in the brain, the neurodegenerative disease called Alzheimer's steals away memory as it gradually destroys brain cells, changing personalities and disrupting lives in the process.

Because the risk of Alzheimer's disease increases as people grow older, it is typically associated with old age -- but the disease is not a normal part of aging. The blurry distinction between Alzheimer's and typical symptoms of aging is one factor that contributes to late diagnoses of the disease, says Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Nancy Munro.

"A lot of people get into their 60s, and they start seeing changes in their memory -- like not remembering somebody's name," Munro said. "If they go to their doctor and ask whether it's normal aging or Alzheimer's, the doctors have no easy way to answer that question. Right now, the doctors say it's probably normal and that these senior moments happen. But it might not be the case."

Munro is collaborating with fellow scientists at ORNL and the universities of Kentucky and Tennessee on a method that could help primary care doctors detect Alzheimer's in patients during the early stages of the disease. An early diagnosis is considered critical because medications currently available are most effective if they are used in the very early stages of Alzheimer's. Medications may be even more helpful if they are used when a patient has mild cognitive impairment, a condition that frequently progresses into Alzheimer's .

"In a general or environment, people aren't being screened early enough," Munro said. "Patients are usually only called to the attention of the family doctor when they're so far along into dementia that the memory medications aren't helpful anymore."

The team conducted a to identify preclinical Alzheimer's using a technique called electroencephalography. Although neuroimaging methods like MRIs and are successful at recognizing early forms of Alzheimer's, the techniques' expense and inconvenience prohibit their everyday use. In contrast, EEG is a relatively simple test that measures electrical activity from the brain's neurons from electrodes attached to the scalp.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky Medical Center collected EEG data from three groups -- patients with no dementia symptoms, patients diagnosed with and patients diagnosed with early Alzheimer's -- as the individuals performed a short visual working memory test. Advanced data analysis performed by an ORNL and University of Tennessee collaboration revealed that the EEG tests succeeded in terms of sensitivity, accuracy and specificity in identifying the conditions of the different groups, Munro said.

"Although the sample sizes were relatively small, the results are highly encouraging," Munro said.

The team hopes to expand upon its initial study by increasing the sample size of the groups to validate and improve the screening abilities of EEG analysis. Ultimately, the goal is to develop a simple, efficient device that could provide real-time analysis in a general practice or a community hospital setting.

The need for an early screening tool may become more pressing as the number of Alzheimer's patients steadily increases. It is estimated that 35 million people worldwide suffer from the disease, and the number is expected to reach 115 million by 2050. Although scientific understanding of the condition is expanding, no cure exists. Munro emphasizes that for now, prevention, particularly in the form of exercise, is deemed to be the best tool for staving off the onset of Alzheimer's.

"Regular exercise helps you repair and replenish the neurons that are important for an intact memory," Munro said. "The risk factors for cardiovascular disease are similar for Alzheimer's, so controlling diet, weight and cholesterol levels is good for both your heart and your brain."

Related Stories

Education protects against pre-Alzheimer's memory loss

date Oct 20, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. – People with more education and more mentally demanding occupations may have protection against the memory loss that precedes Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published in the October 21, 2008, ...

Recommended for you

UK nurse cured of Ebola after receiving new treatment

date 26 minutes ago

A British army reservist who contracted Ebola while working as a volunteer nurse in Sierra Leone has fully recovered after becoming the first patient in the world to receive an experimental new treatment.

COPD takes big toll on employment, mobility in US

date 52 minutes ago

(HealthDay)—The respiratory illness known as COPD takes a toll on mobility and employment, with a new report finding that nearly one-quarter of Americans with the condition are unable to work.

Genetic test for inherited kidney diseases developed

date 3 hours ago

Many kidney disorders are difficult to diagnose. To address this problem, scientists and clinicians have developed a diagnostic test that identifies genetic changes linked to inherited kidney disorders. This ...

Diagnosing infectious diseases at the point-of-care

date 4 hours ago

A major problem with current testing for infectious diseases in Africa is that it focuses on individual diseases and cannot reliably discriminate between them. Since most infectious diseases have the same ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.