In the field of neuroscience, the search for information on how to diagnose, treat and perhaps even prevent Alzheimer's disease is a priority. Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease, for which there is no cure.
Thousands of researchers, graduate students and scientists are involved in the ongoing research, but so far there has been very little progress. Estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) put the number at 15 million patients in the United States. Globally, cases are hovering at more than 44 million, and those numbers are rising steadily.
Researchers at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Sheffield Biomedical Research Center at the University of Sheffield have recently published a new study that looks at cells deep in the brain that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. When these cells are disrupted and cannot fire as they should, the ability to form new memories is impacted. The team at NIHR investigated whether or not the drop in the output of these cells could be an early sign of Alzheimer's.
One of the major problems in treating Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the difficulty in diagnosing it. Currently, there is no test that can provide a firm diagnosis before the disease is well-established. PET scans can pick up images of beta-amyloid plaques, but not until the disease is in the later stages. Most cases of AD are not definitively diagnosed until after death, during autopsy examinations of brain tissue. There are no effective treatments for AD, but being able to understand the mechanics of how it begins could lead to medications that might be able to slow the progress of the disease. Professor Annalena Venneri, from the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) at the University of Sheffield, led the work. She explained, "Our findings suggest that if a small area of brain cells, called the ventral tegmental area, does not produce the right amount of dopamine for the hippocampus, a small organ located within the brain's temporal lobe, it will not work efficiently. The hippocampus is associated with forming new memories; therefore these findings are crucial to the early detection of Alzheimer's disease. The results point to a change which happens very early on, which might trigger Alzheimer's disease. This is the first study to demonstrate such a link in humans."
Professor Venneri and fellow lead author Dr.Matteo De Marco recruited 51 healthy adults, 30 patients who had a diagnosis of mild cognitive decline and 29 patients with an Alzheimer's diagnosis for the study. Participants underwent 3Tesla MRI scans, which are twice the strength of standard MRI scans and provide the highest resolution possible. The images along with testing of the study volunteers showed that the size and function of the ventral tegmental area, the volume of the hippocampus and the ability to learn and remember new information were all intertwined.
Going forward, the team at Sheffield hopes to be able to narrow down when these factors can be seen on imaging and use that information in evaluations of early onset Alzheimer's. While there may not be sufficient treatments at this point, most experts agree that finding the disease as early as possible is the best path towards discovering how to treat it best. Take a look at the video included, to find out about this study.