UCI researchers aim to identify early indicators of dementia

With $3.8 million in support from the National Institute on Aging, University of California, Irvine neurobiologists are working to identify the early indicators of dementia in older adults as disease-related brain plaques accumulate but before symptoms can be observed.

The researchers are developing sophisticated methods using brain imaging technology to understand the mechanisms of Alzheimer's disease and predict its onset before any outward manifestations. If successful, their work will pave the way for effective preventive treatments that will substantially increase quality of life for patients and reduce the burden on families and the healthcare system.

"Cognitive decline is a significant public health concern as the population over the age of 60 continues to grow sharply," said Michael Yassa, Chancellor's Fellow and associate professor of neurobiology & behavior and director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory at UCI. "We will be faced with $50 trillion in Medicare costs as baby boomers age, making this effort to determine biomarkers for Alzheimer's disease all the more significant."

He added that the five-year study aims to pinpoint factors leading to cognitive decline in the presence and absence of beta-amyloid proteins, the hallmark brain plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease. Yassa will lead a team in testing and monitoring 150 adults between the ages of 60 and 85 who have no symptoms of dementia but may have a family history of it.

Ultrahigh-resolution MRI scans will be used to gauge brain structure and function, and florbetapir PET scans will measure amyloid plaques, while highly sensitive cognitive examinations will detect subtle memory deficits. Participants' cognitive health will be followed for several years to determine whether the test results can reliably predict outcomes. It is hoped that this research will shed light on the mechanisms of Alzheimer's disease during the pre-symptomatic phase. Successful completion will allow Yassa and his colleagues to provide guidelines for designing future clinical trials to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's.

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