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New use of brain scan may yield delays in Alzheimer’s symptoms


May 15, 2000
Web posted at: 5:41 p.m. EDT (2141 GMT)

(CNN) -- California medical scientists, working to delay and prevent Alzheimer’s disease, have discovered a means to detect early brain malfunctioning before onset of serious memory loss and other symptoms of the disease.

In a study reported this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers said they combined genetic testing with electronic brain scans to measure preliminary deterioration of brain tissue.

"We are now in a position to use these genetic and brain imaging tools to determine if we can prevent age-related memory decline and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease," said Dr. Gary Small, lead investigator during the study, conducted mainly by researchers of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Symptoms of the disease, afflicting an estimated 8 percent of people 65 and older, usually begin with minor memory disruption, similar to memory loss suffered by most people as they age. However, with Alzheimer’s patients, memory loss gradually progresses to an extreme, accompanied by decline of language and other higher intellectual functions.

Typically, victims become bedridden and require total care. An estimated $100 billion a year is spent in the United States on Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Barry Lebowitz, chief of geriatric treatment and related research at the National Institute of Mental Health, said, "The UCLA study provides an important step in offering hope that we will eventually have an impact on Alzheimer’s disease through prevention."

For the study, researchers tested 54 adults, aged 50-84, who had common memory complaints connected to aging. Half of the participants carried the gene -- apolipoprotein E-4 (APOE-4) -- associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Using positron emission tomography (PET scans), researchers took images of the participants’ brains. Even though the results of memory testing appeared normal for both groups, the brain scans of individuals with the APOE-4 gene showed deterioration.

"These findings indicate that brain-function decline may begin to occur in the brain in individuals with APOE-4 long before the actual physical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease appear," Small said.

Armed with this new knowledge, scientists may be able to provide an effective way to detect Alzheimer’s disease before symptoms become apparent, then "test preventive therapies before permanent brain damage becomes extensive," he said.

Bill Thies of The Alzheimer’s Association said if people are diagnosed earlier, medications would probably "have a greater impact." However, the role of any potential treatment to date -- including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, Vitamin E and estrogen -- "is still unclear," he said.

CNN Medical Correspondent Rhonda Rowland contributed to this report.

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