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Brain Scans May Reveal Alzheimer's Decades Before Symptoms Appear

Update Date: Feb 13, 2014 03:37 PM EST

Brain scans can be used to predict Alzheimer's disease decades before debilitating symptoms appear in children of dementia patients.

New research reveals that the brain scans of people who do not have dementia but have two parents with Alzheimer's disease exhibit signs of the disease years before symptoms appear.

"Studies show that by the time people come in for a diagnosis, there may be a large amount of irreversible brain damage already present," lead researcher Lisa Mosconi, PhD, with the New York University School of Medicine in New York, said in a news release. "This is why it is ideal that we find signs of the disease in high-risk people before symptoms occur."

The latest study involved 52 people between the ages of 32 and 72 who did not have dementia. Participants underwent several kinds of brain scans including Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans.

Researchers explain that PET scans measure the amount of brain plaques and overall brain activity, and MRI scans show brain structure and reductions in brain volume.

The findings revealed that people with both parents who had Alzheimer's disease had more severe abnormalities in brain volume and metabolism. They also showed five to 10 percent more brain plaques in some parts of their brains compared to other participants.

However, participants whose mother had Alzheimer's disease had higher levels of Alzheimer's disease biomarkers in their brains than those whose father had the disease.  Researchers said the study supports previous findings that people whose mothers had Alzheimer's disease were more likely to develop it than those whose fathers had the disease.

"Our study also suggests that there might be genes that predispose individuals to develop brain Alzheimer's pathology as a function of whether one parent or both parents have the disease," Mosconi said. "We do not yet know which genes, if any, are responsible for these early changes, and we hope that our study will be helpful to future genetic investigations."

The findings are published in the journal Neurology.

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