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New research takes step toward catching Alzheimer's early

Washington University scientists found that a lack of sleep could increase the protein amyloid beta, a protein linked to Alzheimer's disease.
The New England Journal of Medicine ©2012
Brain scans illustrating the changes occurring in brains of those who carry inherited Alzheimer's disease, even decades before symptoms surface.

A new study led by Washington University confirms that the brains of people with a very rare, early-onset form of Alzheimer's disease begin to change long before they first show signs of dementia.

The research brings us a step closer to early diagnosis of the more common type Alzheimer's that produces symptoms after age 60.

Washington University neurologist Dr. Randall Bateman says researchers saw changes in the brain scans, spinal fluid, and blood of people with inherited Alzheimer's as much as 15 to 20 years before the onset of symptoms.

Bateman says the next step is a clinical trial for those with the early-onset, inherited form of the disease.

"The prediction is that, if we use the right drugs in the right amount, and at the right stage of the disease in the patient, that we would be able to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease in these individuals," Bateman said.

Bateman says the hope is that the same biological markers can eventually be used to diagnose the much more common form of Alzheimer's that develops later in life.

Dr. John Morris, the director of Washington University's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, and leader of the study, agrees. But, he says we're still a long way from using brain scans to diagnose Alzheimer's in the population at large.

"If someone had a positive scan at age 60 could we say when they would develop dementia or even that they inevitably will develop dementia? We can't say that at this point," Morris said. "And plus, we have very little that we can do to modify the course, whatever the course is going to be."

Morris says for now, the next step is to try to prevent or delay the debilitating symptoms of Alzheimer's in people with the rare, early-onset form of the disease.


Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience


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