The sizes of nine critical regions in the brain may serve as predictors for Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study led by Bradford C. Dickerson, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.
The study builds on Dickerson’s prior research, which observed that these nine regions exhibited shrinkage in Alzheimer’s patients.
Aly Negreira, a research assistant at Dickerson’s lab, said that this past work “highlighted certain nodes in the brain that shrink preferentially if you are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.”
The latest research indicates that cognitively normal individuals with smaller measurements in these regions are more likely to be afflicted with Alzheimer’s in the future.
The researchers tracked 65 subjects, all initially cognitively normal, for approximately a decade. When the study concluded, six of the eleven subjects with the smallest brain measurements had developed Alzheimer’s.
Negreira said these patients were “asymptomatic about a decade before they actually converted to dementia.”
Conversely, all nine subjects with the largest measurements remained cognitively normal ten years into the study.
Such results suggest that this method could one day serve as an early diagnostic technique for Alzheimer’s, according to Dickerson.
Though he was quick to note that his research was still in the beginning stages, he expressed cautious optimism concerning its potential.
If this method were refined and adapted further, he said, its predictive role could resemble that of high cholesterol in predicting heart disease.
Current Alzheimer’s diagnostic techniques are largely reactionary, Dickerson said: patients exhibit cognitive symptoms, go to the doctor, and receive a diagnosis.
A technique to identify those cognitively normal individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s would allow early intervention and treatment.
While such techniques are far in the future, Dickerson explained some more short-term applications of the study’s results.
The research, he said, could allow for more focused testing of Alzheimer’s drugs by limiting the pool of test subjects to those most likely to fall ill.