MRIs Reveal Brain Shrinkage Years Before Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

New research using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans has found shrinking of the brain that may be the precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. This research may allow doctors to detect and treat patients before they become symptomatic, and keep them functional longer.

The research was conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Pennsylvania, and involved 159 people who were without memory problems. By looking for shrinkage in the grey matter of the brain known as the cerebral cortex, in areas that are commonly affected by Alzheimer’s, researchers were able to assess the risk factor of Alzheimer’s in the group. Nineteen people in the study were rated as high risk, 116 were rated as average risk, and 24 rated low risk.

The group was monitored for three years. During that time 21% of the people in the high-risk group developed changes in their thinking or memory, while only 7% of those in the average-risk group showed memory changes. None of those in the low-risk group developed any memory loss.

The research is not without its flaws, and may or may not be a viable guideline for determining a person’s risk factor for Alzheimer’s. As the participants were only involved in the study for three years, the long-term results are inconclusive. At the current time, Alzheimer’s is diagnosed based on symptoms only. The only way that it can be scientifically diagnosed is by looking at the brain during an autopsy after death.

Experts not involved in the study consider it promising, but recognize the long-term problems in using this method as a diagnostic tool at the present time. “It’s not ready for prime time yet,” says Adam Rosenblatt, MD, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, in Richmond. “It’s awfully suggestive that that’s what they’re observing, but it’s not like they followed people to autopsy and looked at their brains and proved they had Alzheimer’s.”