Predicting dementia nine years before diagnosis

Thursday, 13 June, 2024

Predicting dementia nine years before diagnosis

A new test can predict the onset of dementia with 80% accuracy, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London.

The new method can predict dementia up to nine years prior to diagnosis. In addition, it is more accurate than memory tests or measurements of brain shrinkage — two commonly used methods for diagnosing dementia.

The team, led by Professor Charles Marshall, developed the predictive test by analysing functional MRI (fMRI) scans to detect changes in the brain’s ‘default mode network’ (DMN). The DMN connects regions of the brain to perform specific cognitive functions and is the first neural network to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

How was the research conducted?

The researchers used fMRI scans from over 1100 volunteers from UK Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database and research resource containing genetic and health information from half a million UK participants, to estimate the effective connectivity between 10 regions of the brain that constitute the DMN.

The researchers assigned each patient with a probability of dementia value based on the extent to which their effective connectivity pattern conforms to a pattern that indicates dementia or a control-like pattern.

They compared these predictions to the medical data of each patient on record with the UK Biobank. The findings showed that the model had accurately predicted onset of dementia up to nine years before an official diagnosis was made, and with greater than 80% accuracy. In the cases where the volunteers had gone on to develop dementia, it was also found that the model could predict within a two-year margin of error exactly how long it would take that diagnosis to be made.

The researchers also examined whether changes to the DMN might be caused by known risk factors for dementia. Their analysis showed that genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease was strongly associated with connectivity changes in the DMN, supporting the idea that these changes are specific to Alzheimer’s disease. They also found that social isolation was likely to increase risk of dementia through its effect on connectivity in the DMN.

“Predicting who is going to get dementia in the future will be vital for developing treatments that can prevent the irreversible loss of brain cells that causes the symptoms of dementia,” said Charles Marshall, Professor and Honorary Consultant Neurologist.

“Although we are getting better at detecting the proteins in the brain that can cause Alzheimer’s disease, many people live for decades with these proteins in their brain without developing symptoms of dementia. We hope that the measure of brain function that we have developed will allow us to be much more precise about whether someone is actually going to develop dementia, and how soon, so that we can identify whether they might benefit from future treatments.”

Image credit: Bingol

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