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The hope for early detection and prevention of Alzheimer's disease

The hope for early detection of Alzheimer's
The hope for early detection of Alzheimer's disease 05:17

This week, Sharyn Alfonsi and a 60 Minutes team met Dr. Ali Rezai, a pioneer in what could be a revolutionary new approach to treating people with Alzheimer's disease.

In clinical trials 60 Minutes followed over the last year, Dr. Ali Rezai and his team have used ultrasound, the same technology used for tracking fetal development in the womb, to deliver therapeutics more efficiently to the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease.

The results were astonishing: beta-amyloid plaque, a buildup of protein believed to be linked to the cognitive impairment in those with Alzheimer's, was significantly reduced in those patients— 50% more than other parts of the brain treated with an infusion alone. 

"It's just one of the areas impacted with Alzheimer's," Rezai said. "There's many other factors, but these beta-amyloid plaques are really becoming more and more of interest in terms of [the] development of new therapeutic approaches."

Dr. Rezai explained that beta-amyloid plaque accumulates in the brain as people age. For people with Alzheimer's, it accumulates much faster. Over time, that rapid accumulation can impact brain function, disrupting communication between brain cells. 

"People cannot find their way around. They get lost. They can't do a bill or calculate a tip... problems with memory and thinking occur because these protein clumps are blocking the connection of the neurons," Dr. Rezai said. 

Although research into the technology is still ongoing, Dr. Rezai said new developments in blood testing could help doctors identify patients who are at risk for Alzheimer's disease by detecting the presence of beta-amyloid plaque in a blood sample. With those results, physicians can then determine if more testing is needed.

Dr. Rezai said that this blood testing is an "important, simple screening tool" and there's been "a lot of progress there," but the test is currently only being used for people who have early Alzheimer's and requires further study. 

"I can see potentially a time in the future where people can say, 'I want to test my blood. I have a family history of Alzheimer's, so I want to know if I have beta-amyloid in my blood,'" he explained. "And it's empowering for an individual to know what may be down the line."

While a proven method to prevent Alzheimer's disease is not yet known, Dr. Rezai said positive lifestyle changes to diet, exercise and sleep can improve your overall brain health, and that might reduce your risk for Alzheimer's disease.

"Mediterranean diet has been shown to be beneficial. Sleep is fundamental to human recovery. Reduction of stress, reduction of alcohol, aerobic exercise, controlling your blood sugar, management of weight and obesity, diabetes, hypertension...all these contribute to memory loss or memory difficulties over time," he explained. 

"You can do the simple things that we can all do. Diet, exercise, engaging with families and friends, [and] new hobbies have been shown to very significantly recover the brain."

The video above was produced and edited by Will Croxton. 

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