There are currently more than 55 million people living with dementia across the globe, and the World Health Organization says there are nearly 10 million new cases each year. The figures will continue to climb with an aging and growing population, so researchers have been working to find a way to help lessen the impact. With that goal in mind, a group of scientists may have found a brain characteristic that could predict dementia a decade before symptoms arise.
Research recently published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association used MRI imaging to pinpoint risk factors linked with Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias (ADRD) that could ultimately help with prevention. The team found that the thickness of a portion of the brain – cortical gray matter – was linked with ADRD risk and cognitive function years later.
Dr. Claudia Satizabal, lead author from UT Health San Antonio’s Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, says, “The big interest in this paper is that, if we can replicate it in additional samples, cortical gray matter thickness will be a marker we can use to identify people at high risk of dementia. By detecting the disease early, we are in a better time window for therapeutic interventions and lifestyle modifications, and to do better tracking of brain health to decrease individuals’ progression to dementia.”
To look for such possible therapies, the team examined MRI scans from 1,500 people, with an average age of 70 to 74, comparing images from Alzheimer’s patients taken 10 years earlier and images from cognitively healthy peers. They found that those with the most thinning in cortical gray matter had more than three times the risk of developing ADRD than those with less thinning. On the other hand, those with the thickest cortical gray matter had better cognitive health and episodic memory.
The team found that this didn’t vary based on participants’ race or ethnicity. They also investigated whether the high-risk Alzheimer’s gene APOE4 played a role in the thickness of cortical gray matter, but they didn’t find a link, which they say is encouraging, as modifiable risk factors could be contributing to it.
Though they stress that more research is needed, this could ultimately help with the development and testing of treatments. Going forward, the team hopes to investigate risk factors that could be linked with the thinning, like cardiovascular issues or environmental pollutants.
They also lauded their participants, with study co-author and Glenn Biggs Institute director Dr. Sudha Seshadri saying, “The people who had the research MRI scans while they were well and kept coming back to be studied are the selfless heroes who make such valuable discoveries, such prediction tools possible.”