Detecting diminished dopamine-firing cells inside brain could reveal earliest signs of Alzheimer's

March 27, 2018, University of Sheffield
PET scan of a human brain with Alzheimer's disease. Credit: public domain

A new link between diminished input from dopamine-firing cells deep inside the brain and the ability to form new memories could be crucial in detecting the earliest signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Scientists from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre at the University of Sheffield have discovered a loss of cells that use dopamine - a neurotransmitter that has a number of functions including regulating movement and emotional responses - may cause the part of the brain responsible for forming to function less effectively.

The findings could revolutionise screening for the early signs of Alzheimer's disease - which affects more than 520,000 people in the UK - changing the way brain scans are acquired and interpreted as well as using different memory tests.

Lead author of the study, Professor Annalena Venneri, from the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) at the University of Sheffield, said: "Our findings suggest that if a small area of brain cells, called the , does not produce the right amount of dopamine for the hippocampus, a small organ located within the brain's temporal lobe, it will not work efficiently.

"The hippocampus is associated with forming new memories, therefore these findings are crucial to the early detection of Alzheimer's disease. The results point at a change which happens very early on, which might trigger Alzheimer's disease.

"This is the first study to demonstrate such a link in humans."

Professor Venneri and fellow lead author Dr Matteo De Marco acquired 3Tesla Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans on 51 healthy adults, 30 patients with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, and 29 patients with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. 3Tesla MRIs are twice the normal strength of normal MRI scans generating the highest quality images.

The results showed a key link between the size and function of the ventral tegmental area, the size of the hippocampus and the ability to learn new material.

"More studies are necessary, but these findings could potentially lead to a new way of screening the elderly population for early signs of Alzheimer's disease, changing the way brain scans are acquired and interpreted and using different memory tests," said Professor Venneri who is also an Honorary Consultant at Sheffield Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

"Another possible benefit is that it might lead to a different treatment option with the potential to change or halt the course of the disease very early, before major symptoms manifest.

"We now want to establish how early alterations in the ventral tegmental area can be seen and also test whether these alterations can be counteracted with treatments already available."

The results of the study are published today (27 March 2018) in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

Explore further: Brain scans detect Alzheimer's before onset of symptoms

Related Stories

Brain scans detect Alzheimer's before onset of symptoms

October 4, 2017
Researchers in New Mexico and Croatia have used a brain scanning technique known as magnetoencephalography, or MEG, to search for a new biological fingerprint of Alzheimer's disease. The results of the study are published ...

Links found between blood type and risk of cognitive decline

June 4, 2015
A pioneering study conducted by leading researchers at the University of Sheffield has revealed blood types play a role in the development of the nervous system and may cause a higher risk of developing cognitive decline.

Lack of brain shrinkage may help predict who develops dementia with Lewy bodies

November 2, 2016
Dementia with Lewy bodies is a progressive disease that causes hallucinations, decline in mental abilities, rigid muscles, slow movement and tremors. With symptoms similar to Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, a ...

New possibility of studying how Alzheimer's disease affects the brain at different ages

August 31, 2017
Alzheimer's disease can lead to several widely divergent symptoms and, so far, its various expressions have mainly been observed through the behaviour and actions of patients. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have ...

Scientists spot early signs of Alzheimer's disease

July 9, 2013
Early signs of Alzheimer's disease can be detected years before diagnosis, according to researchers at Birmingham City University.

The size of your hippocampi could indicate your risk of cognitive impairment

October 14, 2015
A larger brain volume could indicate a reduced risk of memory decline according to research published in the open access journal Alzheimer's Research and Therapy.

Recommended for you

Rate of dementia on the decline—but beware of growing numbers

April 17, 2018
The good news? The rate of older Americans with dementia is on the decline.

Research offers potential insight into Alzheimer's disease

April 16, 2018
Slightly elevated beta-amyloid levels in the brain are associated with increased activity in certain brain regions, according to a new study from the Center for Vital Longevity (CVL) at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Americans with a college education live longer without dementia and Alzheimer's

April 16, 2018
Education gives people an edge in their later years, helping them to keep dementia at bay and their memories intact, a new USC-led study has found.

Evidence mounts for Alzheimer's, suicide risks among youth in polluted cities

April 13, 2018
A University of Montana researcher and her collaborators have published a new study that reveals increased risks for Alzheimer's and suicide among children and young adults living in polluted megacities.

Improving brain function in Alzheimer's disease mouse model

April 11, 2018
Using two complementary approaches to reduce the deposits of amyloid-beta in the brain rather than either approach alone improved spatial navigation and memory in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease. These findings suggest ...

Sleepless nights show ties to Alzheimer's risk

April 10, 2018
Even one night of lost sleep may cause the brain to fill with protein chunks that have long been linked to the development of Alzheimer's disease, a new study warns.

0 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.