According to CBS, researchers used a new imaging technique that they claim can spot physical brain changes in Alzheimer's as they occur. Alzheimer's causes brain changes that eventually lead to the loss of memories and abilities to perform everyday functions. Many of these debilitating changes can be seen in the brains of people who have already passed on from the disease or are in advanced stages, however, there was no clear way to spot these disease signs early as they're first occuring. That is, until now.
The brains of people with the disease often show physical damage, like abnormal clusters of built-up proteins called beta amyloid that form brain plaques and dying nerve cells full of tangled strands of protein called tau. The new imaging technology developed by these researchers targets tau proteins because those proteins are linked to the negative memory effects of the disease.
The study was led by Dr. Makoto Higuchi, a researcher at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan. During the research, scientists developed fluorescent compounds that bind to tau proteins. That way, the proteins could easily be picked up on PET (positron emission tomography) scans, which create 3D images of the brain by picking up radioactive tracer materials that get absorbed into the brain. The signals are then turned into 3D images by computers.
Researchers tested both mice and humans, and garnered promising results. The researchers were able to correlate the spread of the tau tangles within a brain to signs of Alzheimer's disease progression in both animals and elderly people with the disease.
"This is of critical significance, as tau lesions are known to be more intimately associated with (brain neuron) loss than senile plaques," wrote Higuchi.
The new imaging concept may also help improve diagnoses of other conditions associated with tau tangles, like Parkinson's disease or non-Alzheimer's forms of dementia that don't involve the telltale plaques.
If a scan could track progression of these tau protein tangles, it could possibly allow doctors to diagnose the disease earlier or help monitor treatments to make sure they are working. The findings could open up new avenues of research, the study authors wrote.
The National Alzheimer's Plan kicked off in May 2012 as part of a collaborative effort of the government and Alzheimer's researchers to find other ways to diagnose the disease earlier and develop better treatments by 2025. The Obama administration also made available a $100 million initiative to map the brain, similar to how government scientists mapped the human genome. They were mapping the brain in order to learn more about neurological diseases.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, about 5.2 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, and that number is projected to increase to 13.8 million by 2050, considering the aging baby boomer population.
Alzheimer's is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.
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