There are currently 5.7 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in the United States, and this number is projected to reach 14 million by the year 2020. As of 2018, AD was the fifth-leading cause of death of seniors, taking more lives than breast or prostate cancer combined. With such staggering and ever-increasing numbers, the need for early detection and treatment has reached a crisis point.
But understanding AD hasn’t been easy. Researchers have struggled to identify the true cause of this disease, develop a standard treatment plan, or find a cure. While an AD diagnosis may seem dire, early detection of the disease can help identify how the disease progresses, which in turn can help to create a treatment option.
New Research on AD Biomarkers and How to Detect Them
Recent research has shown a connection between changes in the brain’s anatomy and biomarkers known to appear at the early signs of AD. These biomarkers occur before any sign of cognitive problems, meaning these markers could possibly lead to a new, non-invasive AD screening test. Researchers have already discovered that the build up of amyloid-Beta and tau proteins on the brain, as well as a loss of volume in the hippocampus, are early signs of AD.
To further examine any links between these two phenomena, researchers from McGill University and McGill-affiliated health institutes studied 88 AD at-risk individuals with no signs of any cognitive decline from the disease. The subjects were given MRI scans to check brain volume, and also had cerebrospinal fluid samples taken to test levels of amyloid-Beta and tau proteins.
The researchers found that high levels of both amyloid-Beta and tau proteins were associated with loss of hippocampus volume, but there was no loss in volume when only one of the proteins accumulates within the brain. This suggests that doctors may someday be able to use MRI scans to monitor changes in the brains of AD patients at a microstructural level, before more serious changes begin to take place.
The recognition that symptoms of AD progress from physiological to cognitive can help diagnose those most at risk of developing this disease. These biomarkers might also help with testing the effectiveness of trial medications, and might one day allow physicians to target at-risk individuals with a simply MRI scan rather than a painful lumbar puncture.
The Expanding Role of MRI Scans in AD Diagnosis and Treatment
Non-invasive tests for AD have ramifications that extend well beyond patients themselves, to friends, family, and society at large. The fact is, in addition to being heartbreaking, Alzheimer’s is an incredibly costly disease. Many AD patients require more hospital visits, as well as full-time, long term care. However, accurate and early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease could help save $7.9 trillion is medical costs—and relieve some strain on family members and friends.
Thanks to MRI scans and their potential role in spotting Alzheimer’s before cognitive symptoms appear, we seem to be edging ever-closer to the ultimate goal of treating AD effectively.
“Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.” ALZ. Alzheimer’s Association, 2018. Web. 28 June 2018.
“A non-invasive method to detect Alzheimer’s disease.” McGill. McGill University, 19 Dec. 2017. Web. 28 June 2018.