Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a frightening prospect for anyone who is growing older. For adults with family members who have it, there is added stress of caring for their loved ones and wondering if they too will get the disease.
While AD is believed to have a genetic component, it's not well understood how the disease passes on to future generations. There is an increased risk of developing dementia for the children of Alzheimer's patients, but there's no accurate way to predict if or when someone with a family history of the disease will get it. A new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO hopes to change that and come up with a way to more clearly identify at-risk individuals.
It's an ongoing project, begun in 2005 and funded by the National Institute on Aging which is part of the National Institutes of Health. So far it's been instrumental in uncovering molecular and tissue changes in the brain that are precursors of the disease. These changes happen years before the disease is apparent. Based on that success, the grant has been renewed, and the study will be extended another five years.
John C. Morris, MD is the Harvey A. and Dorismae Hacker Friedman Distinguished Professor of Neurology and director of the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Washington University. He explained, "Our participants want to know if and when they will experience symptoms such as memory loss. We anticipate that in the next five years we can begin to tell them." There is still no cure for Alzheimer's and no treatments that have proven to slow down the progression or improve symptoms, however, if Morris and his team can get accurate predictions, family members who are at substantial risk can be placed in clinical trials that investigate medications or document early onset symptoms.
The Adult Children Study at Washington University finds people between the ages of 45 and 74 who are not currently having any memory or cognition issues, but who have a parent who has Alzheimer's. There is also a control group of similarly aged adults whose parents have never been diagnosed with any form of dementia. Both groups are followed over the years and undergo memory testing, cognitive skills, and brain scans. Spinal taps are also conducted to measure levels of beta-amyloid proteins in cerebrospinal fluid.
The goal of the next part of the study is to identify a set of criteria that can predict when a person will develop AD and how fast it will progress. The only way to do this is to get detailed data from a large number of participants and then analyze that data. Alzheimer's begins in the brain 15-20 years before symptoms show up, so being able to understand the early part of the disease is essential to figuring out risk. If patients know years ahead of time that they have a good chance of developing the disease they can plan for their future care needs and help family members prepare for what is accurately called "The Long Goodbye." Check out the video to learn more about the study. New participants are being recruited currently, so if you are interested in volunteering, the link to contact the team can be found here (http://alzheimer.wustl.edu/Volunteer/ACS.htm)