They sound like such simple tests — checking eyes for hypersensitivity to a dilating solution, checking sense of smell and examining blood for certain proteins. But these tests are not so simple and combined together with several others, they could change the future of Alzheimer's disease treatment, making it possible for people carrying the disease to receive preventative treatment years before symptoms appear.
During the next year, doctors and researchers from throughout Florida will be performing a battery of tests on 100 Charlotte County senior citizens to study biological markers associated with the disease, said James Mortimer, a University of South Florida professor and one of the leading researchers on the team. "The study we are preparing to do is very different from previous studies," Mortimer said Wednesday afternoon, when he and other researchers associated with the study converged in Punta Gorda to discuss the tests involved.
When complete, researchers hope the study will lead to a simple way for doctors to detect Alzheimer's disease years before symptoms occur, preferably by a blood test, Mortimer said.
Amy Borenstein, a University of South Florida professor, described how testing a person's sense of smell can relate to early detection of the disease. When studying the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease after they've died, researchers often see that the part of the brain most affected is the same part responsible for "processing scents," Borenstein said. Borentstein said research has shown that sense of smell is affected in an early stage of the disease. That's why participants will be given sniff tests. But Borenstein said the smell test is "by no means diagnostic."
Steven G. Younkin, chairman of the neuroscience department at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, said he jumped at the chance to be a part of the study. Younkin's research has centered around a protein that can be deposited in the brain, called an amyloid beta protein. His studies so far have shown that this protein is to Alzheimer's disease what cholesterol is to heart disease. His research has also shown that the presence of the protein tends to increase in old age and in the children and relatives of Alzheimer's patients and in old age — the two biggest risk factors for developing the disease.
Another test will measure how sensitive the participants' eyes are to a solution used to dilate pupils. Huntington Potter, a University of South Florida professor, discovered while conducting research at Harvard University that the eyes of Alzheimer's patients react when just a small drop of the solution is dropped in.
Other researchers will study MRI scans of the participants' brains, biological markers in blood and memory tests. Mortimer said the study should begin in about two months. He said it will take about a year to to collect all of the data researchers need for the study. The 100 participants will all be people between the ages of 66 and 91 who participated in Charlotte County's Healthy Aging Study several years ago.
Mortimer received an $89,600 grant from the Florida Alzheimer's Center & Research Institute in Tampa in January to begin researching the biological markers associated with Alzheimer's. His previous research has shown that people can have the disease decades before they notice symptoms.
Gloria J.T. Smith, president of the Gulf Coast Chapter of the Alzheimer's association, said she thinks the study will give caregivers and families of Alzheimer's patients something they desperately need — hope that there may be a cure. "This is encouraging," she said. "I'm really looking forward to being put of out a job and I think these are the folks who can do it." In the 17 county region that comprises Southwest Florida, Smith said there are 155,000 people who've been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. In the United States, there are only eight states that have more people with Alzheimer's than this 17-county region in Florida.
Source: The Sun-Herald.