Nearly 36 million people worldwide are estimated to currently have dementia, and that figure is expected to almost double every 20 years. Researchers at the University of Georgia are hoping a new biomarker will lead to earlier diagnosis.
Former graduate student Carlos Faraco and Stephen Miller, director of the UGA Bio-Imaging Research center, used fMRI scans to measure brain activity in people with mild cognitive impairments.
They focused on the area of the brain that deals with working memory, and Miller says they found something interesting.
“It’s an increase in blood flow and a change in the magnetization process, which suggests greater blood flow into those areas of the brain. And greater blood flow into those areas of the brain is a proxy for neural activity,” said Miller.
That could mean that those subjects have to work harder to use their memory. If further research supports their finding, Miller says they could identify individuals who seem to be at higher risk for developing dementia much earlier.
By the time patients complain to their doctors, Miller explains the disease process may have been going on for up to 10 years.
“So we need to back way up in terms of identifying individuals well before these changes in the brain are occurring. Because by the time we notice them clinically, it will be much more difficult for us to develop interventions for someone who has lost substantial amounts of brain integrity.” he says.
Miller hopes they will be able to identify dementia patients based on early, relatively subtle signs of cognitive difficulties: those who have mild memory problems, forgetfulness and those who may have difficulty with spatial recognition and information recall. Early dementia patients may also have trouble learning new pieces of information. But he stressed they are still functionally fine and living independently.
He says after about 5 years about half of those patients exhibit more serious forms of dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s disease. But researchers found that half of them don’t progress to the more serious forms of cognitive impairment.
Miller says more research still needs to be done to confirm their hypothesis. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, and scientists can’t yet stop the progression of the disease, he stresses that as new treatments become available, it’s important to catch dementia earlier, before the patient loses significant brain function.