Thinner Brains Could Signal Alzheimer's, Study
WEDNESDAY, Dec. 21 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests
that the outer edges of the brain are thinner in older people who
may be destined to develop Alzheimer's disease, but there's
currently no way to use the information to help people fend off
Still, the findings could help researchers test Alzheimer's
medications by allowing them to track the progression of the
disease, said study co-author Dr. Brad Dickerson, an associate
professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the
United States, according to the Alzheimer's Association, and the
number of deaths has risen in recent years. There's no cure for the
In the new study, researchers focused on the thickness of the
edges of the brain, known as the cortex. "We're looking at the
parts of the cortex that are particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer's
disease, parts that are important for memory, problem-solving
skills and higher-language functions," Dickerson said.
Previous research found that several areas of the cortex were
smaller in people with dementia from Alzheimer's. "It's like an
orange that's shriveling. The thickness of the outer skin might get
thinner as it dries out," Dickerson said.
In the new study, researchers examined the MRI brain scans of
159 people with an average age of 76; about half were men. Three
years later, the participants took tests designed to measure how
their brains were functioning.
The findings appear in the Dec. 21 online issue of the journal
The 15 percent of participants with the thinnest brain areas
performed the worst on the tests: About one in five of them
experienced cognitive decline. They also showed increases in signs
of abnormal spinal fluid, a possible sign of developing Alzheimer's
"That suggests they may be developing symptoms," Dickerson said.
A lower number -- 7 percent -- of the participants in the middle
range of brain thinness experienced cognitive decline. None of the
people with the least thin brain areas developed problems.
So are the scans appropriate as tools to figure out whether
patients are on the road to Alzheimer's?
Cost doesn't appear to be a major challenge at this point. It's
not clear how much the MRI scans might cost at doctor's offices,
Dickerson said. However, they're only a few hundred dollars each in
the research world.
Also, many older people already receive MRI scans of the brain
for other reasons, said Dr. Raj Shah, medical director of the Rush
Memory Clinic, in Chicago.
But with no cure for Alzheimer's, the best use for the scans
will be to help researchers figure out if medications work,
Cathy Roe, an assistant professor of neurology at the Knight
Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Washington University School
of Medicine, in St. Louis, said the findings could have value down
the line. "Right now, there is not much we can do to delay the
progression of dementia," said Roe, who's familiar with the
findings. "But once effective treatments are identified, this
research could help to identify which patients should receive that
treatment and when they should receive it."
For more about
Alzheimer's disease, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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