Tracking signs of memory loss

As minor forgetfulness progresses until names and faces blur, a person might be told that he or she probably has Alzheimer’s disease–but a definitive diagnosis awaits an autopsy showing the characteristic presence of beta-amyloid plaques clogging the brain. Now, researchers report that brain scans tracking a new compound can highlight these plaques in living people undergoing early stages of disease, when therapies may be most effective at staving off future memory loss.

HOT SPOTS. Normal brain (left) shows little labeling with a new compound. In contrast, the brain of someone suspected to have early Alzheimer’s disease (right) shows bright colors where the marker binds. University of Pittsburgh

Researchers have long known that the plaques accumulate in the brain long before symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear. So, William Klunk of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues developed a radioactive molecule that, in animal studies, crossed from blood into the brain and bound exclusively to plaques. Because the molecule, dubbed PIB, appeared safe in the animals, the next step was for a team at Uppsala University in Sweden to inject the agent into people.

In nine people with suspected early Alzheimer’s disease, brain scans lit up regions known to be plaque sites in the disease, Klunk says. In contrast, scans of five people in whom Alzheimer’s wasn’t suspected showed few signs of the marker. The findings were presented July 24 in Stockholm at the International Conference for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders.

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