Alzheimer's Scan Creates Moral Dilemma


The Alzheimer's Dilemma: Doctors Can See It Coming, But Still Can't Stop It

Recent breakthroughs in Alzheimer's research mean diagnosis can come years before symptoms begin. What do you do with that knowledge?

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta

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Dr. Ron Peterson at the Mayo Clinic has tools an earlier generation of Alzheimer's disease researchers could only dream of.

"We have imaging modalities, we have what are called biomarkers," he says, "so blood tests, spinal fluid tests can give us a clue as to what's going on in the brain."

A few decades ago, Alzheimer's could only be definitively diagnosed in an autopsy, when a pathologist identified the hallmark 'plaques and tangles' of protein that ravage the brain.

Dr. Peterson is using volunteers to track the progress of this disease from its earliest stages. He has found complex changes in the brain begin up to 20 years before those plaques and tangles first appear.

Knowing what is coming can be a mixed blessing for Alzheimer's patients and their future caregivers. Since there is still no cure, the early diagnosis offers knowledge, but little hope.

That doesn't mean there is nothing Alzheimer's patients can do to get ready. Peterson says there is some evidence that a healthy diet, an active social life, and intellectual engagement may delay the onset of symptoms.

"Aging need not be a passive process," Peterson says, "such that we sit there and watch it happen."

There are also support groups for both patients who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's early, and their loved ones who will eventually have the burden of caring for them.

It is estimated that the number of Americans with Alzheimer's will triple over the next 40 years, so researchers are racing to untangle the mysteries of this disease and eventually treat it.

"We're hopeful that as the field moves forward we will be able to develop therapies, drugs, immunization therapies that may in fact have an impact on this underlying disease process," Peterson says.

Last Updated:5/16/2013

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