(CBS) If scientists are right, brain shrinkage could hold the key to solving the ever-expanding problem of Alzheimer's disease.
A new study shows that the brains of people who develop Alzheimer's start shrinking years before symptoms of the devastating neurological disease emerge. It suggests that scientists may be able to use MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scanners - widely available in U.S. hospitals - to predict who will get Alzheimer's.
"The MR measurements could be very important indicators to help identify who may be at risk of developing Alzheimer's dementia," study co-author Dr. Leyla deToledo-Morrell, professor of neurological sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said in a written statement. "If a drug therapy or treatment is developed in the future, those who are still without symptoms but at great risk would benefit the most from treatment."
For the study, researchers tracked 52 people in their seventies with mild cognitive impairment, a condition thought to be a prelude to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. MRI scans given over a six-year period showed some study participants' brains exhibited shrinkage of a region that receives signals from the substantia innominata, a structure deep within the brain. Those individuals were more likely to develop Alzheimer's -with those who exhibited the most shrinkage being three times more likely to get the disease.
Alzhemer's causes a slow decline in memory, thinking, and behavior. It's incurable, and currently there is no reliable way to know who will get it.
The Alzheimer's Association says more than five million Americans are now living with Alzheimer's disease - a figure that could grow to 16 million by 2050.
The study was published in the April 13 issue of the journal "Neurology."