Study aims to detect signs of Alzheimer's disease before it develops

New study challenges brain to identify early risk

By Aaron Wische - Senior Executive Producer, Sara Donchey - Anchor/Reporter

HOUSTON - Challenging the brain to help predict Alzheimer's disease is the focus of a new study aimed at detecting signs of the disease up to 20 years before symptoms develop.

Eighty-nine-year-old Anne Snyder knows Alzheimer’s disease. It killed Frank, her husband of 61 years. It's why she joined an early Alzheimer's detection study at Huntington Medical Research Institutes.

"I think it's one little thing I can do that may help. It's totally irrational, but I feel like I’m helping him," Snyder said.

Michael Harrington, M.D., director of Neurosciences Huntington Medical Research Institutes in Los Angeles, created a brain challenge to find biomarkers for Alzheimer's decades before symptoms start. Participants take tests while wearing a cap that tracks brain activity.

"You can pick up early heart disease by running on a treadmill. We'd like to do the same for the brain, except you don't run the brain on a treadmill, you ask it few questions, and that's how this developed," Harrington said.

EEGs of participants with bad chemistry show they work harder to answer the same questions as the others. Bad means their spinal fluid shows changes in the levels of proteins known to be factors in the development of Alzheimer's.

"If we can show that it's got the rigor to do an equivalent detection, you wouldn't need to have a spinal tap. You wouldn't need expensive PET imaging," Harrington said.

Snyder sees even more potential.

"I think it's terribly important because then it might be easier to do something, if not to prevent it, then at least slow it down," Snyder said.

This study is six months old and only has six participants so far. Harrington plans to add many more people and to follow them for years. The only thing holding him back is more funding.

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