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UPenn Doing First-Of-Its-Kind Genetic Testing For Alzheimer's Disease

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Could Alzheimer's disease be in your future and would you want to know?

The University of Pennsylvania is doing research on genetic testing and two new drugs to treat the memory-robbing disease.

The research is targeting the millions of people who have relatives with Alzheimer's disease.

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It's a first-of-its-kind project to combine genetic testing and counseling with screening, and for certain people at high-risk, there are experimental drugs.

Susan Lawson, 68, painted a picture of her son based on a photograph as art classes have turned her into a talented artist.

She also does sophisticated needle work and tons of reading -- all activities to keep her mind sharp.

Lawson's concerned because her mother and several other relatives had Alzheimer's disease.

"With that kind of family history you kind of get a little nervous about it," Lawson said.

Lawson enrolled in the generation study at Penn Medicine.

A cheek swab can detect genes that increase the risk for developing Alzheimer's.

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Those with a certain combination can test new drugs that target amyloid plaque in the brain.

"The hypothesis is if you can slow down or otherwise disrupt the development of amyloid plaques, that you can slow down the death of neurons and therefore slow down the onset of cognitive problems," explains Dr. Jason Karlawish of the University of Pennsylvania.

He says researchers are also testing how best to inform patients about genetic results.

The genetic test showed Lawson has a 25 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's.

"It also means i have a 75 percent chance of not developing it," she said.

With her husband Bill, she says together they told their children, who also have a 25 percent risk of developing Alzheimer's.

"I don't know that you'll ever be able to prevent it but if so, I'd like to be part of that," Lawson said.

Because the genetic testing showed a relatively small risk, Lawson didn't qualify for the new drugs that Penn is testing.

Penn is  recruiting for the study, looking for people with a family history of Alzheimer's  who don't currently have any cognitive issues.

To learn more about participating in research related to Alzheimer's disease, mild cognitive impairment, cognitive aging, and lifelong brain health at Penn, visit the Penn Memory Center.

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