New Method May Help Predict Alzheimer's

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Correction Appended

A study published June 30 co-authored by UC Berkeley researchers has found a more accurate way to predict Alzheimer's disease by using brain imaging and a memory test, potentially advancing research and drug development.

Published in Neurology scientific journal, the study - authored by Susan Landau, Cindee Madison and William Jagust of the UC Berkeley Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, along with nine other researchers - found that abnormalities on both a PET scan and episodic memory test can predict, with very high certainty, whether a patient will develop Alzheimer's within two years. The information was first presented last year at the International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease in Vienna.

The episodic memory test involves reading to a patient a list of 15 to 20 words, providing cues for how to remember the word, then having the patient repeat back the list in five minutes. The PET scan uses positron emission tomography technology to detect oxygen activity in the brain. This information elucidates functional abnormalities in addition to the anatomical abnormalities that can be detected in less advanced types of brain imaging.

The study lasted approximately two and a half years and involved 85 subjects with mild cognitive impairment - a typical population for Alzheimer's research, according to the study, since it represents an intermediary stage between Alzheimer's and normal functioning.

The study is part of the larger Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, which involves data collected from 800 participants in 57 laboratories nationwide.

In addition to data from PET scans and episodic memory tests, data was collected for the study by measuring hippocampal volume and recording the presence of a genetic marker and certain proteins. In order to determine the most effective predictors, the data was then subjected to statistical analysis by the biostatistics core.

"The larger goal (of the initiative) is to use biomarkers and imaging to predict and diagnose Alzheimer's," Landau said.

However, since the subjects of the recent study are from a select memory clinic, it is a population from which issues are to be expected, said Gary Kennedy, director of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

"This study has limited application to most people," Kennedy said. "In all my years of being a doctor, I have probably only had one patient where a PET scan helped with the diagnosis."

Landau said another barrier to widespread use of the treatments is the money and time involved in administering and analyzing the PET scans.

"(We need) to have some way of diagnosis that doesn't depend on millions of dollars of equipment and hard-to-interpret tests," she said. "But PET scans are more reliable because they are an objective measure of biological criteria."

Both Landau and Kennedy said the study is important for research and drug development. Seven governmental and 21 private pharmaceutical organizations have funded the project.

"We understand that no one biomarker may be the answer and different tests work at different times," said Maria Carrillo, senior director of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association, one of the organizations with a stake in the initiative. "This is exactly the kind of relevant research that we support and are in full support of giving additional funds and helping (the initiative) to expand globally."


Correction: Tuesday, July 20, 2010
A previous version of this article identified the Alzheimer's Association as a private company. In fact, the association is a nonprofit, voluntary health organization.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Contact Samantha Strimling at [email protected]

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