Researchers at UCLA have found early signs that could help predict an eventual onset of Alzheimer's, well before any outward symptoms, through the use of sophisticated brain-imaging techniques.
They've been able to predict a brain's progression to Alzheimer's by measuring subtle changes in brain structure over time, changes that occur long before symptoms can be seen.
The findings, based on two studies, could allow for early interventions for the disease, according to researchers.
In the first study, which appears in the online edition of the journal Human Brain Mapping, UCLA assistant clinical professor of neurology Liana Apostolova and colleagues tracked 169 people over three years who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition that causes memory problems greater than those expected for an individual's age - but not the personality or cognitive changes that define Alzheimer's.
They found that after three years, those who went on to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease showed a 10 to 30 percent greater atrophy in two specific locations within the brain's hippocampus, a part of the brain known to be critical for long-term memory.
In the second study, which appears in the online edition of the journal Neurobiology of Aging, the researchers looked at 10 cognitively normal elderly people and compared their brain scans with those of seven other elderly people who were later diagnosed with MCI and then Alzheimer's.
Again, they found that the group that went on to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's showed the same pattern of atrophy in the same regions of the hippocampus.
Apostolova said that this shows excess atrophy is present in cognitively normal individuals who are predestined to develop MCI. Further, that atrophy ultimately cascades across the entire hippocampus of the brain, leading to Alzheimer's disease.
"We feel this is an important finding because it is in living humans. Now we have a sensitive technique that shows the 'invisible' - that is, the progression of a disease before symptoms appear," said Apostolova.