Parents with Alzheimer's may be passing abnormal brain changes to kids

If your mom and dad had Alzheimer’s, a new study suggests you might already have early signs of the brain-destroying disease.

Researchers took brain scans of people, and found those who had both biological parents diagnosed with the disease were more likely to have evidence of disease risk -- including the telltale protein plaque buildup -- on their brains decades before symptoms might show up.

“Studies show that by the time people come in for a diagnosis, there may be a large amount of irreversible brain damage already present. This is why it is ideal that we find signs of the disease in high-risk people before symptoms occur,” study author Dr. Lisa Mosconi, a psychiatry professor at the New York University Langone Medical Center, said in a statement.

Researchers recruited 52 dementia-free people between 32 and 72 years old, and gave them PET and MRI brain scans.

PET scans measure overall brain activity and can also spot the brain plaques, while MRI scans look at overall brain structure and volume.

The participants were assigned to four groups of 13 based on whether their mother had Alzheimer’s, father had the disease, both parents were diagnosed or there was no family history of disease.

They found those with both parents affected by the neurodegenerative disease had more severe abnormalities in their brain volume, and between 5 and 10 percent more brain plaques in certain regions, compared to the other three groups. 

 Brain volume is associated with overall brain health, with shrinkage and the subsequent loss of brain cells linked to dementia risk. Alzheimer’s patients typically see declines in the volume of the brain’s hippocampus, a structure responsible for memory.

Amyloid plaques are formed by pieces of a sticky protein that breaks off in the brain and clumps together. More plaques form on regions of the brain involved in learning memory and cognition as the disease progresses.

 Having a mom with Alzheimer’s led to more signs of the disease on the brain scans than having a dad with the disease, the researchers also found.

They noted their study was small, and more research was needed. But, the findings could suggest there might be genes involved in this disease risk.

“Our study also suggests that there might be genes that predispose individuals to develop brain Alzheimer’s pathology as a function of whether one parent or both parents have the disease,” Mosconi said. “We do not yet know which genes, if any, are responsible for these early changes, and we hope that our study will be helpful to future genetic investigations.”

Health officials anticipate the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to triple by 2050, from 4.5 million patients currently to nearly 14 million.