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Amyloid Deposits in Cognitively Normal People may Predict Risk for Alzheimer's Disease

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For people free of dementia, abnormal deposits of a protein associated with Alzheimer's disease are associated with increased risk of developing the symptoms of the progressive brain disorder, according to two studies from researchers at Washington University in St. Louis.

The studies, primarily funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, linked higher amounts of the protein deposits in dementia-free people with greater risk for developing the disease, and with loss of brain volume and subtle declines in cognitive abilities.

The two studies are reported in the Dec. 14, 2009, online issue of Archives of Neurology. The scientists used brain scans and other tests to explore the relationship between levels of beta-amyloid, a sticky protein that forms the hallmark plaques of Alzheimer's disease, and dementia risk in cognitively normal people.

John C. Morris, M.D., who directs the NIA-supported Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis, and his team conducted the research. Martha Storandt, Ph.D., also of Washington University in St. Louis, directed one of the studies.

"Previous studies of brain pathology, cognitive testing, and brain imaging have for some time suggested that Alzheimer's pathology causes changes to the brain many years before memory loss, confusion, and other symptoms of the disease are apparent. But it remains difficult to accurately predict whether a cognitively normal person will-or will not-develop the disease," said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. "These new studies suggest that beta-amyloid measured in the brains of cognitively normal individuals may be a preclinical sign of disease."

Morris' team used a variety of measures to look for changes in the brain in the two studies, including positron emission tomography (PET) imaging using a radioactive form of Pittsburgh Compound B (PiB), an agent specially developed to detect levels of beta-amyloid protein in the living brain; magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure brain volume; and standardized clinical tests of memory and thinking abilities to determine cognitive health. Previously, the link between beta-amyloid load and Alzheimer's disease could only be confirmed at autopsy.