Study: Brain Changes Appear Twenty-Five Years Before Alzheimer’s Does
Current Alzheimer’s drugs treat only the late symptoms of the disease. But a new study, led by Dr. Randall Bateman of Washington University in St. Louis, provides evidence that the disease can be detected up to twenty-five years before the dementia-related problems appear.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, outlines a series of alterations to brain and spinal tissue that precede the appearance of Alzheimer’s in those who are genetically predisposed to develop it.
Researchers collected data from 129 patients, monitoring their progress and using their family histories to estimate when they would begin to show signs. Dr. Bateman says this is the first report that we have of these changes in living people. Brain size fluctuations as well as the build-up of plaques in certain areas can occur as early as age forty-five; two decades before the earliest detection of symptoms.
The first of these changes, a decrease in the level of amyloid protein in the brain, occurred up to twenty-five years before the age researchers estimated the acute signs of the disease would appear for each patient. Clumps of cerebral beta amyloid, implicated in the plaque formation that accompanies Alzheimer’s, can be detected up to fifteen years before, and poor glucose utilization by the brain followed by memory slippage can occur ten years prior to symptoms.
Dr. Bateman is not yet certain if these same biological markers can be applied to those who develop the more common late-onset form of the affliction. But others are ready to use them as a means to test the effectiveness of a new set of drugs. According to Dr. Bateman, a new study is already underway that is testing the ability of three potential treatments on Alzheimer’s patients. The results of two of the drugs being used, bapineuzumab from Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson and solanezumab from Eli Lilly, should be made available this fall.
These drugs represent the latest hope in the quest to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. If the results are promising, it could lead to the development of treatments that would save the country billions in healthcare costs as well as improve the lives of more than five million Americans living with the illness.