Innovations in Alzheimer's Detection

With more than 5 million people in the United States living with Alzheimer’s Disease and another American being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s every 68 seconds, it seems inevitable that someone you know and love (including yourself) will be diagnosed with the disease later in life.  More awareness around dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease has lead to more research efforts are being funded, four of which were showcased at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark last week.

The four studies all found that the eyes and nose play a large role in early diagnosis of the disease.

Study #1: Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

Lead researcher Shaun Frost and his colleagues tested 40 volunteers by administering a supplement with curcumin, a derivative of cumin, a common spice.  The curcumin attaches to beta-amyloid which is fluorescent, and a examined the results using a new imaging system from NeuroVision Imaging, LLC.

The test accurately detected each of the Alzheimer’s patients, and also ruled out 80 percent of those who did not have the disease.

Study #2: Cognoptix, Inc.

The Cognoptix team studied 20 people who were likely candidates for Alzheimer’s and 20 healthy people.  By applying a fluorescent dye in their eyes before the exam and then using a laser scanner to find beta-amyloid in the lens of the eye.  This test detected 85 percent of Alzheimer’s cases and ruled out 95 percent of healthy people.

“This system shows promise as a technique for early detection and monitoring of the disease,” Paul Hartung, president and CEO of Cognoptix, said.

Study #3: Columbia University Medical Center in New York

The team of researchers at Columbia University tested a sample of 1,037 people in New York City, all with an average age of 80. In 2004, at the beginning of the study, none of the volunteers had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  The participants continued to be seen by the researchers until the study’s conclusion in 2010.

Each time the participants saw the researchers, they were given a standard smell test. “It’s a standardized test which has 40 items, each of which is a scratch-and-sniff item. The person smells it and has to choose the correct choice from four choices,” Dr. Davangere Devanand told NBC News. “All are very familiar smells, such as gasoline, pizza, tea, apple.”

The end result?  By 2010, 109 people had been diagnosed with dementia. “If you score poorly on the test, you are more likely to decline cognitively over time,” Devanand said.  “But by itself it’s not diagnostic that you will definitely decline over time.”

Study #4: Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health

Building on the findings of Devanand’s team at Columbia, Harvard’s Matthew Growdon and his team studied the reasoning behind why the smell tests works.

They tested 215 healthy-looking people enrolled in the Harvard Aging Brain Study at  Massachusetts General Hospital.  Growdon’s team of researchers administered the same smell test to their volunteers but also measured the size of two brain parts – the entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus, both of which are important for memory. The test also measured amyloid deposits in the brain and included standard cognitive tests for all participants.

The people with lower scores on the test were found to have a smaller hippocampus and a thinner entorhinal cortex, which suggests the brain shrinkage associated with Alzheimer’s may affect smell first.

“Our research suggests that there may be a role for smell identification testing in clinically normal, older individuals who are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Growdon.

Hilary Young is the Communications Manager for Medical Guardian.  She is dedicated to helping educate seniors and their Caregivers about how to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. Follow Hilary on Twitter: @hyoungcreative

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