November 29, 2010, The Dallas Morning News
Nov. 29--A few years from now, experts say, diagnosing Alzheimer's disease may be as simple as a blood test.
"It seems like we're getting very close in detection, very close," said Dr. Denise Park of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas. "And that seems like a miracle."
UTD and UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers are part of a national effort to better understand the factors that contribute to brain health and the pathologies that lead to Alzheimer's disease.
Early detection is a cornerstone of Alzheimer's research, said Dr. Roger Rosenberg, a professor of neurology and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at UT Southwestern.
That means diagnosing people with a high risk of developing the disease before the brain is irreversibly damaged -- during the 10 or 20 years when the neuropathology of Alzheimer's begins but the person doesn't show symptoms.
At the Center for Vital Longevity, Park is overseeing three brain studies: a lifespan study to observe the brain's changes over time, a synapse project to detect how staying active or learning new activities can preserve brain function in older age, and a cultural study that measures how brain functions are influenced by a person's culture.
The goal is not simply to understand cognitive decline but also to find "super agers" and try to find out why their brains have aged well, Park said.
Doctors are also beginning to use new technology to detect amyloid, a plaque-causing protein that can lead to Alzheimer's disease. Spinal taps and PET scans have proven to be effective tools in looking for plaque buildup in at-risk patients, Rosenberg said. He uses the analogy of catching a person's high cholesterol before it becomes heart disease.
Rosenberg is working on a DNA vaccine that holds promise for fighting amyloid buildup with antibodies. After successful trials with mice, he said he hopes to begin clinical trials on people in about a year.
In the next five years, Rosenberg expects to see blood tests available to measure the presence of proteins linked to Alzheimer's disease. In five to 10 years, he expects advancements in genomics -- the ability to use a person's genetic code found in a cheek swab to measure his or her risk of developing diseases such as Alzheimer's.
Yet until there are drugs or vaccines available, earlier detection will mean a longer time to cope with a disease that is, for now, irreversible, said Paul Chafetz, a psychologist who specializes in geriatric issues and the impact of Alzheimer's disease on relationships.
Chafetz advises caretakers to try to avoid confrontation, protect the person's dignity and seek support, by visiting a counselor or joining a support group through the Alzheimer's Association.
"I would tell them that they are not the first to encounter this," said Chafetz, whose mother had Alzheimer's. "It's not a stigmatized or embarrassing disease. And there will be a lot of wonderful people to share the journey with."
Find out more about the Alzheimer's Association and Trailblazers, an early-stage support group for people diagnosed with Alzheimer's and their care partners, by calling 214-540-2400. Call the 1-800-272-3900 hotline for help 24 hours a day.