Researchers at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute are trying to crack one of medicine’s most challenging mysteries: can we detect who is going to develop dementia and what do we need to look for?
A major five-year study is looking at how to detect Alzheimer’s disease when future sufferers are still young and healthy, so treatment can start before the brain tissue is substantially damaged.
Lead researchers, Professor Michael Breakspear, Dr Christine Guo and Professor Nick Martin launched the Prospective Imaging Study of Ageing (PISA) study after securing grant funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council in 2015.
Now partway through the research, Professor Breakspear said participants in the study were taking part in cognitive and genetic tests, magnetic resonance (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) imaging to help pinpoint the markers that might be indicators of developing the disease.
“While the burden of dementia in Australia occurs late in life, the underlying brain disease accumulates decades prior to the first symptoms,” he said.
“We want to develop ways to identify those people at the very earliest stage of the disease and before permanent and often irreversible damage to the brain takes place.
“By following the participants in this study for years to decades, we can really start to look at the progression of brain changes.
“This would also allow us to study the role of genetic and lifestyle factors – such as sleep and physical activity – to help us to really understand the causes of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Dr Guo said the study was enhanced by the development of a new imaging system, which tested the memories of participants by having them view a series of news clippings.
“The results from the news viewing experiments are really encouraging,” Dr Guo said.
“We’ve found the rich emotional and natural flavour of the news clips evokes the memory processes more robustly than traditional tasks used to study memory in the laboratory.
“Previous tasks may have typically required memorising and recalling very abstract pieces of information, or isolated words and faces.
“Our hope is this will allow us to more effectively capture the subtle memory deficits of someone who is in the very earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”
She said Alzheimer’s disease remained an enormous burden on Australian society, with devastating consequences for those living with it, as well as their families and carers.
“Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease once a person’s functioning is impaired and there has been damage to the brain is a bit like trying to treat cancer in its final stages. It’s too late to reverse the disease. That’s why early screening and intervention – as we see in breast and skin cancer screening – is so vital,” she said.
“If we can identify the patients who are at risk or in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, we would be in a much better position to reverse the pathological process that causes it.
“With growing effort being made in preventative programs, early intervention will allow us to identify at-risk individuals and start working with them sooner to delay the disease.”
Dr Guo said the study had already recruited 47 participants, with another 10 scheduled for testing before the end of the year.