UCLA develops new method to track neuron cell death leading to Alzheimer's disease

January 09, 2006

Findings: UCLA researchers developed a new brain imaging strategy that tracks neural cell loss in the hippocampus, a key memory center of the brain. Using a chemical marker called MPPF and positron emission tomography (PET), researchers measured the amount of serotonin receptors 1A found in neurons abundantly present in the hippocampus. In Alzheimer's disease these neural cells die, causing the hippocampus to atrophy and shrink.

Impact: This new imaging method may allow doctors to track neuronal cell reductions in the hippocampus in people that precede clinical symptoms -- offering a new avenue for understanding disease progression and a potentially sensitive new tool for early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and dementia. The new method is currently under patent application.

Authors: Dr. Jorge R. Barrio, UCLA professor of medical and molecular pharmacology and Dr. Gary Small, a professor with the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, are available for interviews.

Journal: The research appears in the Jan. 9 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A PDF is available of the full study.

Funding: Department of Energy

Visuals: Colorful PET scans of the brain available.

Background: Using the new strategy, UCLA researchers found density decreases of the hippocampus and other key memory centers in 49 percent of Alzheimer's disease patients and a 24 percent decrease in patients with mild cognitive impairment. "We hope this new method will lead us to a better understanding of Alzheimer's disease as well as a new strategy for early detection," said Barrio. "A shrinking hippocampus is a hallmark sign of Alzheimer's disease and this new marker will offer a useful strategy for early detection and more effective treatment," said Small.

University of California - Los Angeles

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