Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the most common neurodegenerative disorder of the elderly. Although much progress has been made in understanding the disease, there is currently no treatment to halt its progression. Individuals are left struggling as their independence slips away. Our best hope for these patients is to catch and treat the disease before full-blown dementia occurs. With this goal in mind, new research programs are underway which use brain imaging to diagnose AD at its infancy – a time where treatment will have the greatest impact.

During 2007 more than 97,000 Canadians were diagnosed with dementia, primarily caused by AD. The clinical diagnosis of this condition requires a progressive decline of intellectual abilities interfering with daily life. The prevalence of this disorder is rising substantially worldwide because of aging of populations. Halting this trend by discovering therapies that will arrest AD progression has become an important healthcare priority.

Once a patient has been diagnosed with dementia, damage to the brain has already occurred. Current therapy aims to treat the clinical symptoms but does little to repair the tissue or stop disease progression. New strategies in early diagnosis will allow treatment to begin earlier before the onset of disease. It is the consensus among most clinicians and researchers that treatment during early phase AD, whether it be lifestyle change or new medications, may buy patients precious time. Early diagnosis may also validate an individual’s pre-Alzheimer’s symptoms, providing them with an opportunity to plan accordingly. Finally, clinical trials involving early-diagnosed patients may reveal promising new therapies, which will delay and even halt AD disease progression.

Douglas joins an international consortium of research

With the beginning of the New Year, the Douglas Mental Health University Institute will implement a new research program aimed at early detection of AD. They will join a consortium of other research centers in Europe and North-America, which are using brain imaging to diagnosis AD. Previous research in neuroimaging has suggested that positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are more accurate and consistent measures of the progression of AD than those assessments currently available.

The Douglas’ five-year study, which will be done in collaboration with the Montreal Neurological Hospital and Institute, will enroll individuals who have pre-Alzheimer’s symptoms, such as memory loss. Individuals who are positively diagnosed with AD will also be eligible for clinical trials directed at delaying the onset of AD. It is our hope that findings from this study will validate imaging as the option for diagnosis of early AD and reveal improved treatments for the disease.

This pivotal research that will bring light to those suffering in the shadows with Alzheimer’s disease.

SERGE GAUTHIER., MD, FRCPC, researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and director of Alzheimer ’s disease Research Unit at the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging.