Brain MRIs May Predict Who Will Get Alzheimer’s Disease

A recent study that will be published in the June issue of the medical journal Radiology has determined that MRI brain scans may be useful in predicting whether people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — early-stage memory problems that don’t interfere with daily living — are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The scientists analyzed baseline MRI exams from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, a study comprised of healthy individuals and others with MCI and early Alzheimer’s.  They determined that those with MCI had a one-year risk of progressing to Alzheimer’s ranging from three to 40 percent.  Often, adults who have MCI will develop Alzheimer’s disease at a rate of 15 to 20 annual percent, according to the researchers, which is strikingly higher than the one to two percent rate of the general population.

The study analyzed MRIs of the brains of 203 healthy adults, 164 patients with Alzheimer’s disease and 317 patients with mild cognitive impairment.  Each participant had their brain scanned at the start of the study and again a year later.  “In the last few years we’ve seen a real explosion of biomarkers related to Alzheimer’s disease,” said lead study author Linda McEvoy, assistant professor of radiology at University of California-San Diego School of Medicine.  “Our ability to detect this has improved. I wasn’t surprised by the strength of the results.  Currently there’s no cure or prevention for Alzheimer’s disease.  But there’s a lot of research going on right now into different potential therapies.  If any of those therapies turn out to be useful, then this kind of information will be crucial — a doctor needs to know who’s at higher risk in order to treat them,” McEvoy said.

A similar technique could determine the Alzheimer’s risk for patients with mild cognitive impairment.  McEvoy cautions that the patients studied were not representative of the general population — they had been picked to exclude people who experienced other types of memory problems, such as those resulting from a stroke.  A larger study is needed before the results can be used by physicians in an everyday setting.

“The study is pretty robust,” countered Bill Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association.  “It’s an area of great activity and interest at the moment.  This paper is a really good attempt to sort out biomarker information.”  Other experts warn that an improved ability to predict who will develop Alzheimer’s doesn’t give physicians the means to prevent its terrible prognosis.  Although several medications can temporarily improve thinking skills in some early-to mid-stage Alzheimer’s patients, no treatments exist that prevent or cure the condition.

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