May 23, 2003 

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Alzheimer’s Scans (video)
April 29, 2003

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Interviewees: Betty Stewart, Daughter; Paul Thompson, University of California Los Angeles.

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Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.

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A new 3-D time-lapse video technique is helping neuroscientists see the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in patients’ brains for the first time.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, it will help in early diagnosis and intervention.

Brain Map

Until now, doctors could only measure the physical spread of Alzheimer’s disease by examining the brains of deceased patients after it was too late to help them. But with a new brain scanning technique, now they can see the disease progressing in living patients, which will allow them to pinpoint where and how fast the disease is spreading, and reveal whether drugs and vaccines combat the brain damage that Alzheimer’s causes.

Neuroscientists from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Queensland in Australia used a new imaging analysis technique to track the spread of Alzheimer’s-related cell death in living patients. They detected changes in brain scans created using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and created the first 3-D, time-lapse video map showing the spread of Alzheimer’s disease.

“This is the first technique to actually watch the physical spread of Alzheimer’s in the [living] brain,” says Paul Thompson, assistant professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the study’s chief investigator. “You can use this to look at drug effects, whether they are helping a patient. You can use it for early diagnosis, to see if a person actually has Alzheimer’s. You can also use it to tell if a patient is aging healthily.”

Researchers scanned twelve Alzheimer’s patients and fourteen healthy elderly volunteers every three months for two years. They found that the Alzheimer’s patients lost an average of 5.3 percent of their gray matter per year, whereas the healthy volunteers lost only 0.9 percent of their brain tissue annually.

The time-lapse videos revealed that the destruction of brain cells in patients with Alzheimer’s follows a specific sequence: the areas affected first are those that control memory function; then, those that control emotion and inhibition; and finally, those that control sensation. “You see this forest fire of tissue loss in the brain,” says Thompson. “It’s almost as though early changes happen in a very small area of the brain, but then there is this sort of terrific spreading of cell loss into other areas. With imaging, we can actually track the progression of this. Now, we all know that if you can see something spreading, there might actually be a way of stepping in and telling if the ways of preventing it are being helpful.”

These scans will allow doctors to evaluate whether a medication is actually working in a patient, which, until now, they could only do by assessing whether the patient’s memory was improving. “Just seeing if the memory loss has slowed down isn’t the most effective way to see if the drug is working,” explains Thompson. “But with brain scans you can actually see if the physical spread of the disease is being slowed by the medication, and which medications are best. Right now, there are a number of medications for Alzheimer’s. We are very excited to apply scanning to see whether one medication is better at saving one area, but another drug might be more effective in different ways.”

The study, which appeared in the February 1st edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, was supported by the National Library of Medicine, the National Center of Research Resources, a Human Brain Project Grant from the National Institutes of Health, and by GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals.

by Karen Lurie

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