An specialised MRI scan, developed by the CSIRO, has been used to look for iron levels in the brain as a predictor Alzheimer’s disease.
MELBOURNE scientists have discovered scans for iron levels in the brain could identify people most at risk of Alzheimer’s.
In a major breakthrough in the fight against the devastating disease, scientists have found that those with significant brain plaque but low iron levels maintain cognitive performance over as much as six years.
But those with high iron levels — particularly in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory formation — progress faster to disease.
A team from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and the CSIRO are behind the finding.
An iron chelator drug already on the market is showing promise at “mopping up” iron in the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients. The Florey team will now test if a twice-a-day dose taken over a year can slow Alzheimer’s progression.
If the trial is successful, Florey Professor Ashley Bush said the 60-year-old GP health check could include a brain scan, followed by a PET scan if brain plaque is found, with medication to halt the disease before symptoms appear.
Florey Professor Ashley Bush. Picture: Supplied
More than 413,000 Australians live with dementia symptoms, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common type.
Florey research fellow and lead author Dr Scott Ayton said: “For clinical trials to be effective, we want to treat people as early as possible.
“But until now we haven’t been able to identify who is going to decline.”
A third of adults aged over 65 have high levels of the plaque (beta-amyloid protein) in their brain, the equivalent to someone with advanced dementia. But many of these people are cognitively well and may never develop Alzheimer’s in their lifetime, showing there is more to the disease than just amyloid.
Hundreds of international clinical trials over the past 40 years focusing on these plaques have not resulted in any disease-modifying drug being approved for the clinic.
Prior studies by the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and others have suggested that iron levels in the brain — which have no connection to iron levels in the blood or iron consumed in the diet — could play a role in predicting who is at risk.
And working with the CSIRO, which developed a new method of measuring iron in the brain using a standard MRI machine, they recruited 117 participants and tested their cognitive function was tested every 18 months for six years.
The breakthrough findings were published today in the journal, Brain.
Prof Bush said: “For the first time, we will be able to assess someone’s risk of progressing into cognitive decline without needing to perform invasive or costly tests.”
The concept was first tested in a blinded experiment of 48 people published in 1991, which showed a first-generation iron chelator could half cognitive decline compared to placebo.
Dr Ayton said that study was never followed up as the international research world shifted its attention to the most logical target of beta-amyloid. But with more advanced scanning technology, he said they hoped to replicate the result.
If you are over 65 and have noticed your memory is declining, or you are newly diagnosed with dementia, register interest to be contacted when the study opens this year.