Brain scans spot changes linked to Alzheimer's

NEW YORK Mon Mar 16, 2009 4:48pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Certain patterns of brain shrinkage seen on MRI scans foreshadow the development of Alzheimer's disease, investigators report.

"Especially with the prospect of disease-modifying therapies, early detection and monitoring of progression are important research goals in Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Wouter J. P. Henneman, at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, and colleagues point out in the medical journal Neurology.

To investigate how different brain changes might be tied to neurological conditions, the research team obtained MRI brain scans for 64 patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, 44 patients with mild cognitive impairment, and 34 unaffected people who served as "controls."

Three of the controls and 23 patients with MCI progressed to Alzheimer's disease by the time a second scan was taken after an average interval of 1.8 years.

Among the controls, having a small hippocampus -- a structure in the brain involved in forming and storing memories -- increased the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease fivefold. The rate of shrinkage of the hippocampus also conferred a similar risk.

In fact, having both a small hippocampal volume and a high shrinkage rate was associated with 61-fold greater odds of developing Alzheimer's.

For people who already had mild cognitive impairment, there was a smaller effect of these combined factors, with a 20-fold increased risk of progressing to Alzheimer's disease.

The researchers conclude: "Regional measures of hippocampal atrophy are the strongest predictors of progression to Alzheimer's disease."

SOURCE: Neurology, March 13, 2009.

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