Pat Summitt case underscores need for presymptom Alzheimer’s test

Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, 59, says she will continue to coach the women’s basketball team despite having symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Treatment for advanced cases of Alzheimer’s disease has failed resoundingly, and researchers are turning their attention to therapies that might work much earlier in the course of the disease to slow or halt brain damage.

Eventually, doctors hope to identify people before symptoms are apparent. Such early diagnosis offers the best hope of treating the condition, they say.

In a study reported Wednesday, researchers found evidence that brain imaging, along with measurement of some specific brain metabolites, can help identify elderly people who seem cognitively normal but have early Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., tested 311 normal older adults with proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy to look for abnormalities in certain brain metabolites that are considered biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease. One-third of the study participants had high levels of amyloid-beta plaque in their brains, which is typically found in Alzheimer’s patients. But the study also found that people with high levels of the brain metabolites choline/creatine were more likely to have lower scores on cognitive tests regardless of the amount of plaque in their brains.

The study suggests a possible approach to detecting the disease early, but many more studies remain to determine the reliability of such an approach. The study is published online Wednesday in the journal Neurology.


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