For the past few years, one of the most important research areas in radiology has been the search for reliable imaging techniques to diagnose early Alzheimer's disease. This has involved attempts to identify deposits of both beta amyloid and tau protein (see: Diagnosing Alzheimer's Disease with Imaging and Biomarkers; Brain Plaque Diagnostic Imaging Procedure Approved by FDA; Alzheimer's Amyloid Tangle Theory Will Be Tested with Merck Drug Trial). A recent article provides a progress report on this research relating to tau protein (see: Tau Imaging Strong Predictor of Memory Loss):
Tau protein in key brain areas of cognitively normal older individuals is strongly correlated to memory loss over time, preliminary research shows. [A researcher recently] found that F18 T807...), a novel positron emission tomography (PET) tau tracer that binds to tau in both the entorhinal cortex and the temporal neocortex, is related to episodic memory decline in normal older people."Our findings indicate the spread of tau, under the influence of, or in the presence of [beta amyloid], to widespread cortical regions may be the sign, the smoking gun, that cognitive impairment is imminent or already under way," [he said]....In addition to beta amyloid (Aβ) plaques, tau neurofibrillary tangles are hallmark pathologies of AD that are laid down many years before symptoms of cognitive decline present. However, until now, detection of tau in the brain has only been possible at autopsy. A normal component of nerve cells, tau helps stabilize the internal neural transport system and supports architecture of neural cells. However, in dementia, the protein transforms and begins to accumulate in abnormal forms. Previous research suggests that levels of tau in the brain may be more closely associated with cognitive decline in AD than Aβ... Going into the study, the investigators hypothesized that tau was going to be "closer to the action" than Aβ and indicate incident impairment and that "when the tau compound binds to the sites in the brain, it was going to show us that these are the people that are about to have trouble or who have already started to have cognitive impairment." The investigators' hypothesis bore out, and they found that there was a "highly significant" relationship between a worsening of memory performance and higher levels of T807 binding in the brain. Identifying early buildup of these proteins in the brain, before cognitive decline occurs, may offer a road to early detection and diagnosis of AD and help identify candidates for prevention studies, investigators note.
Being able to diagnose Alzheimer's disease (AD) in its early stages is important for two reasons. First, it's an important step for differentiating it from other forms of dementia. "The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's disease (75%). Other forms include Lewy body dementia, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, progressive supranuclear palsy, corticobasal degeneration, normal pressure hydrocephalus and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (see: Dementia)." Secondly, a definitive diagnostic method is critical for conducting clinical trials of drugs that can cure or prevent the development of the disease. Here is a description of how how AD is currently diagnosed (see: Alzheimer Disease Imaging):
Current diagnosis of Alzheimer disease ... is made by clinical, neuropsychological, and neuroimaging assessments. Routine structural neuroimaging evaluation is based on nonspecific features such as atrophy, which is a late feature in the progression of the disease. Therefore, developing new approaches for early and specific recognition of Alzheimer disease at the prodromal stages is of crucial importance.