Alzheimer’s: new methods for diagnosis, preserving memory?

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In the ongoing effort to better understand, diagnose, treat and hopefully one day even prevent the devastating mental decline of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers are taking a broad range of approaches — and some are even finding clues in unlikely places. As the New York Times reports, a new technique that combines a dye and brain scan to identify the characteristic plaques of Alzheimer’s could change how the disease is recognized, and help determine whether or not certain treatments are actually making a difference. Meanwhile, a method that could potentially preserve memory for people struggling with memory disorders was accidentally stumbled upon by a team of Canadian researchers while treating a patient for obesity.

The new diagnostic technique incorporating dye and brain scans to identify the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s — presently an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can only be confirmed postmortem — will be presented at a meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association in Hawaii next month, the Times reports. If the approach proves successful in trials and is ultimately approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration, it could change not only the way that Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, but provide a method for determining whether certain drugs or treatments are actually limiting the spread of plaques.

An existing technique known as deep brain stimulation — in which electrodes are planted deep into the brain — has been used to treat tremors, Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain, but when a Canadian medical team attempted to use the method to treat a morbidly obese patient, they found the treatment unexpectedly cause a surge of vivid memories, the Telegraph reports. The results were so striking that it led researchers to wonder whether a similar technique couldn’t help preserve memory in Alzheimer’s patients. As lead researcher Dr. Andres Lozano, told the Telegraph:

“This is a single case that was totally unexpected. We knew immediately this was important. We are sufficiently intrigued to see if this could help people with memory disorders.”

To that end, the team from Toronto Western Research Institute is now using deep brain stimulation on six patients with severe Alzheimer’s. While some experts are critical about whether the technique could do much do help patients with serious cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s researchers — and likely family and friends of Alzheimer’s sufferers — are hopeful that the approach will yield results. As Rebecca Wood, who heads the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, told the Telegraph:

“It will be interesting to see whether this method offers any benefit to people with Alzheimer’s… With the number of people with Alzheimer’s forecast to double within a generation, we urgently need to find ways to tackle this awful disease.”

Read the full Times story here. Read the Telegraph piece here.