Researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have uncovered changes in the brain that could foretell the development of Alzheimer's disease almost two decades before conventional symptoms start appearing.
What the team noticed was a considerable increase in astrocytes - the brain cells which typically protect and support the neurons.
It's believed that this phenomenon is in fact the body's response to the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease in which protein fragments call amyloid build up and damage brain tissue.
The GE funded study accomplished this breakthrough when the team carried out a small scale test on 52 people with genetic mutations that were known to significantly increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Asking the participants to engage in a number of memory tests they then injected the brain with radioactive tracers.
While the tests were taking place the participants were placed inside PET scanners which then show brain activity.
What the researchers found were the first deposits of amyloid had already begun, some 17 years before the expected onset of symptoms.
Interestingly what they also discovered was that the astrocyte cells would initially spike as they tried to fight the build up but would then start declining as the plaque increased.
“Astrocyte activation peaks roughly 20 years before the expected symptoms and then goes into decline, in contrast to the accumulation of amyloid plaques, which increases constantly over time until clinical symptoms show,” Nordberg says.
“To treat Alzheimer’s disease, we must first understand the course of its progression over time and develop diagnostic markers to detect it,” she says. “This line of research offers a new way to understand it, and it also raises the question, can we use this knowledge to develop new therapies?"
The technique has since been adopted by other universities and is already being trialled in the UK at UCLH.
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