People who carry a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease can begin to have changes in the brain that are visible in a functional MRI scan before clinical symptoms appear, researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin reported today from the Alzheimer's Assn. International Conference in Chicago. They examined 28 adults ages 45 to 65. Twelve carried the APOE-4 gene, which predisposes individuals to Alzheimer's disease, and 16 people did not carry the gene. The gene-carriers had no symptoms of the disease, but the study found that people with the gene had reduced function in parts of the brain that are crucial for memory processing. While surely distressing to those at high risk for the disease, the fact that brain abnormalities can be identified before the disease onset raises hopes that treatments can be applied to arrest the disease at an early stage.
In other news from the meeting, researchers from Myriad Genetics today discussed the failure of the phase-three trial of Flurizan. In the study of 1,649 people with Alzheimer's, those taking the drug declined on a cognitive measurement scale at the same rate as people not taking the drug. The study was a disappointment because Flurizan represented the first disease-modifying treatment to advance to a late-stage clinical trial. The study was also the largest and longest placebo-controlled Alzheimer's experiment ever completed. Several questions about Flurizan remain, however, researchers said. They don't know if the dose was high enough or if the intervention started early enough in the course of the disease development. Flurizan is a drug that targets the buildup of amyloid plaque in the brain. Other drugs in development also target amyloid but by a different mechanism.
Another method to detect the disease early shows promise. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis showed that a small sample of spinal fluid can be used to detect an amyloid protein that is a hallmark of the disease. The study found an inverse relationship between presence of the protein in the brain and the level found in cerebrospinal fluid. The test may be useful to show the presence of amyloid in the brain regardless of a person's cognitive status.
And, finally, the artwork posted here is part of a collection by William Utermohlen, a Philadelphia-born artist who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1995 and died last year. An exhibit of his work "Portraits From the Mind" is on display this week at the Chicago Cultural Center in conjunction with the Alzheimer's Assn. meeting. Utermohlen continued to paint even as he lost his ability to communicate verbally. The self-portrait above was completed in 1997 and the one below in 1999 when the illness had progressed significantly.
"Mr. Utermohlen's art visually demonstrates the progression of this devastating disease," said Harry Johns, president and chief executive of the Alzheimer's Assn. "Today, there are an estimated 5.2 million Americans currently living with Alzheimer's in the United States. Unless we find effective treatments, this figure is estimated to grow to as many as 16 million by 2050."
-- Shari Roan