Alzheimer's is the leading cause of dementia today. It causes the brain to lose connections with vital parts of the body. It leads to weakening cognition, loss of memory, difficulty in speech, changes in mood, and even balance. However, it can prove difficult to diagnose, since every case of Alzheimer's affects the brain differently. As the saying goes, if you have met one person with autism, you have met ... one person with autism. Similarly, Alzheimer's affects each person in a unique way. However, until a recent breakthrough in the study of patients with Alzheimer's and their brains, scientists did not understand why. The scientists' findings and their implications for Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers follow.
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and the National University of Singapore found that individual brains with Alzheimer's atrophied differently. (To atrophy means to decay. In Alzheimer's patients, the decaying parts are the various parts of the brain consumed by the disease.) Through mapping this decay and creating mathematical models, the researchers discovered something important. Different areas of brain decay in patients matched with their particular symptoms. For example, if the decay concentrated on areas of the brain associated with language, a patient was likely to have experienced language-related symptoms such as aphasia (difficulty understanding and using language). Similarly, if the brain examined had atrophied near the memory centers of the brain, the patient likely experienced severe memory loss.
In addition, the scientists noticed something else of interest. There were three defined courses Alzheimer's took through the brains of patients: cortical, temporal, and subcortical. Notably, the patients' symptoms reflected the atrophy of these specific brain regions. Correspondingly, cortical atrophy was associated with decline in executive function (planning and decision-making). Temporal atrophy affected memory. Language/movement decline characterized subcortical decline. Of course, many patients experienced multiple "atrophy patterns," as the scientists called them. At these times, the doctors saw several layers of decline and many corresponding symptoms rather than just one type.
It may seem like common sense that the brain's specific areas of decay would match the patient's symptoms. However, the brilliance of the discovery lies in the implications for Alzheimer's patients. For example if doctors know what part of a patient's brain is atrophied, they can (possibly) produce therapies, medications, or surgeries that target that area of the brain. In addition to more targeted treatment, the discovery means that diagnosis of Alzheimer's may be more accurately pinpointed. For example, if symptoms of behavioral and cognitive decline match areas of brain cell atrophy, Alzheimer's is the likely diagnosis. What is more, the earlier Alzheimer's is discovered and diagnosed, the better off patients are. Specific symptoms associated with corresponding brain atrophy lead to predictable behavior patterns. For example, if a caregiver knows that a loved one is affected by Alzheimer's in the memory portion of the brain, the caregiver can prepare in advance for the wandering and confusion risks that will likely follow. Accordingly, forewarned caregivers will be able to ensure in time that their loved ones are monitored around the clock, wear GPS-enabled bracelets, have security alarm systems, or take up residence in a memory-care facility that can meet their needs.
The mathematical modeling in the study adds information that can predict disease progression. Because they can glean patterns of brain atrophy, doctors can more informatively prescribe medications, therapies, or improved care for Alzheimer's patients along the spectrum of their disease.
Seniors who do not currently exhibit the often severe symptoms that lead to an Alzheimer's diagnosis may benefit from the early diagnosis. At risk patients who do not show severe symptoms could be diagnosed using scans and the mathematical modeling of the study. Thomas Yeo, one of the scientists behind the study, said this in a press release linked below.
In summary, researchers are making headway in early diagnosis and symptom prediction in Alzheimer's effects on the human brain. A new and significant piece of the puzzle of this disease has been found.
Maass, Ryan. (October 7, 2016). Brain atrophy patterns may explain diversity in Alzheimer's symptoms. UPI.com. Available at http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2016/10/07/Brain-atrophy-patterns-may-explain-diversity-in-Alzheimers-symptoms/9771475867874/. Retrieved October 22, 2016.