U. QUEENSLAND (AUS) — Doctors may soon detect symptoms of Alzheimer’s earlier—and more cheaply than using MRI—with online navigation tests.
Study coordinator Lizzie Coulson, a professor at the University of Queensland, says her research team has identified how Alzheimer’s disease impairs the cholinergic basal forebrain in undertaking navigational tasks. Their study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.
“One of the areas known to degenerate in Alzheimer’s disease is a region called as the cholinergic basal forebrain, implicated in memory and attention,” Coulson says.
“It has been unclear whether loss of function in this brain area causes the cognitive changes seen early in Alzheimer’s disease.”
The researchers examined the cognitive changes in rodent models with basal forebrain degeneration mimicking Alzheimer’s disease.
“Surprisingly, the mice behaved normally on most of the cognitive tests,” Coulson says. “However on a recall navigation task akin to ‘dead reckoning,’ the mice become disorientated.”
Coulson says this demonstrated that recall navigation tasks relied heavily on cholinergic neurons, which were known to deteriorate early in Alzheimer’s patients.
“By asking patients to perform these navigation tasks, doctors may be able to detect symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease much sooner and more cheaply than the MRI tests,” she says.
“We envision this test could also help to identify patients who would benefit from early administration of current Alzheimer’s disease treatments.” She says early diagnosis is critical as current Alzheimer’s disease treatments enhance the function of cholinergic neurons only when the cells were still healthy.
Coulson, in collaboration with a team from the Czech Republic who developed the human recall navigation tasks, are currently validating the findings in humans.
Volunteers are asked navigate a simple arena on a computer monitor touchscreen. Some subjects also have a brain MRI.
Coulson says the diagnosis tool could be widely used as early as 2015. Patients would perform the online test at a memory clinic, but the examination could one day be undertaken on their home computer, says Coulson.
Alzheimer’s disease patients, known to show specific memory impairment, are currently diagnosed using a range of cognitive tests as well as MRI scans, which can pinpoint the regions of brain degeneration, a symptom of the disease.
The Queensland Government NIRAP (National and International Research Alliances Program) and the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia funded the research.
Source: University of Queensland