New technology studies memory loss, Alzheimer's

January 6, 2010 3:33:07 PM PST
If you lose you keys so much that a family member notices, you may be someone suffering from a mild memory impairment. But is the loss age related, or perhaps the earliest sign of Alzheimers's disease? Researcers are trying some very sophisticated techniques to show the earliest brains changes linked to memory problems. The journal Neurology reports about one of them. NYU Langone Medical Center is studying another.

Though Gloria Feng doesn't look 87, she's had a full life as a restaurateur. So it bothered her when she started to forget things.

"I could be sitting at my desk and looking at something, then put it aside and go back and look for it," she said. "I haven't gotten off the seat, I haven't gone anywhere, now where is it?"

Incidents like that prompted Feng to join a study of memory loss using a special MRI technique. The new study used a similar method to study 76 healthy people. It shows that as memory declines, more and more damage shows up in the nerve cells of the brain's memory area. The new technology shows subtler changes than previous methods.

"If you were looking at an apartment building and you were concerned about it collapsing, if you went inside, you might find cracks in the building before it collapsed," said Dr. Joseph Helpern, of NYU Langone Medical Center.

Dr. Helpern and his colleagues are developing the new method to help doctors find people at risk for Alzheimer's earlier, when the cracks appear, when prevention may be possible.

The value of these studies is that they help Alzheimer's researchers more clearly define what happens to the brain on the microscopic level.

The work lets Dr. Helpern paint a picture of nerve cells that die off as memory fades. The patient with mild memory loss has fewer red nerve cells. A patient with Alzheimer's has even less of an amount.

Researchers want to use the MRI method to find treatable patients.

"But also, in being able to investigate the therapies, we have to have an objective measure of whether or not were making progress," Dr. Helpern said.

Dr. Helpern and his coworkers invented one of the most advanced of these new microscopic MRI techniques. They're also being used to track other brain illnesses and psychological problems such as schizophrenia.

For more information about the research, call NYU Langone at 212-404-3533.