Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Brain Imaging and Genetics Team up Together to Warn of Early Onset Alzheimer's Disease

While we have known about some of the genes thought to be  responsible for Late Onset Alzheimer's Disease, it's only been recently that some hints of the potential genetics that may influence Early Onset Alzheimer's Disease, and it is exciting...


The gene is called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor).  It helps to keep our brains healthy and functioning, especially the memory centers of the brain where it is responsible for learning and memory. Research found that there is less BDNF in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.  This might seem significant, but by itself it was not.  Only when genetic findings were combined with brain imaging did it become clear that scientists had landed on something important.

The most important part was the fact that they saw changes in the brains of patients with a specific variation of the BDNF gene - - before difficulties were noticeable upon testing.

Let me say that again another way - the changes that are seen in the post-mortem (after death) brains of Alzheimer's patients were found when imaging was done on live carriers of the BDNF variant BEFORE cognitive changes had occurred.  

This brings up many difficult yet exciting points:

Before, Alzheimer's Disease couldn't be diagnosed until significant changes had already occurred.  Now, we can see it before any symptoms appear and early diagnosis is possible.   This may lead to earlier treatment and potentially better outcomes for these patients.  BUT they must receive testing and imaging which is expensive and may not be seen as important by physicians.  And how do we decide who should be tested and who not to test? 

The benefits to patients are un-measurable.  The benefits to society are enormous.  Should patients be identified and treated earlier, it is estimated in one article to potentially save the health care system of Canada around $15 Billion over the next 10 years.

Would you want to be tested to see if Alzheimer's Disease is in your future?  In some of the communities I interact with, the answers are very mixed.  Because of the discussions that have taken place re: this topic, I've created a discussion in the Alzheimer's Disease Group where we can talk about making these types of choices, and how we can present this topic to our communities in a way that stimulates conversation without scaring potential patients and caregivers.

I was tested for Late Onset Alzheimer's.  In that discussion I tell a little of my story and show you the results of my testing and what the lab said my odds are for becoming an Alzheimer's patient later in my life.

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