Brain scans could detect Alzheimer's disease decades before memory problems develop
Researchers plan to give treatments that block plaque formation at an early stage to patients genetically predisposed to the condition

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UPDATED:

07:02 GMT, 12 July 2012

Author Sir Terry Pratchett, is a high-profile sufferer of Alzheimer's and has campaigned for greater awareness of the condition as well as more research funding

Author Sir Terry Pratchett, is a high-profile sufferer of Alzheimer's and has campaigned for greater awareness of the condition as well as more research funding

The early warning signs of dementia may appear 25 years before patients and their families notice any outward symptoms, scientists claim.

They believe that sufferers’ brains and spines undergo very small changes when they are in their 30s and 40s.

Experts hope they will eventually be able to develop brain scans that can spot the illness many years before the symptoms show.

And they believe that the earlier patients are treated, the better the chances of slowing down the devastating progression of dementia.

An American study involved 128 people whose parents had an inherited form of Alzheimer’s, meaning they were highly likely to get the disease themselves.

Scientists carried out brain scans and tests on the fluid in their spine.

They noticed that some people underwent changes in the spinal fluid 25 years before they were likely to notice the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

And they also spotted certain deposits in their brains – or ‘plaques’ – that showed up 15 years sooner than memory loss or confusion were expected to appear.

The researchers based the 25-year figure on the assumption that each
person would begin showing signs of the illness at roughly the same age
as their parents.

Dr Bateman (left), pictured with a doctoral student, said scientists were learning ever more about the origins of Alzheimer's

Experts point out that this inherited form of Alzheimer’s – which is
responsible for less than 1 per cent of all cases – is different from
the normal form of the disease.

Therefore they cannot be sure that it would be possible to detect
ordinary Alzheimer’s 25 years in advance. Nonetheless they believe the
research – published in the New England Journal of Medicine – will be
‘invaluable’ in helping them develop future treatments.

Lead author Randall Bateman, from Washington University School of
Medicine in St Louis, said: ‘A series of changes begins in the brain
decades before the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are noticed by
patients or families, and this cascade of events may provide a timeline
for symptomatic onset.

‘As we learn more about the origins of Alzheimer’s to plan preventive
treatments, this timeline will be invaluable for successful drug
trials.’