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Pitt researchers tracking dementia with 3-D brain imaging
January 10, 2006
By Byron Spice

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and UCLA have produced three-dimensional images showing deterioration of the brain's hippocampus that can precede Alzheimer's disease.

The 3-D brain imaging thus promises to give Alzheimer's researchers an important new tool for monitoring patients in their progression to dementia, said James Becker, a Pitt neuropsychologist and lead author of the report, which appears in this month's issue of the Archives of Neurology.

The report focuses on people with mild cognitive impairment, a transitional stage between normal cognition and the dementia of Alzheimer's disease. The 3-D imaging was sensitive enough to show that people with different types of mild cognitive impairment had different types of brain deterioration.

Those with a form of mild cognitive impairment that involves only memory loss suffered significant deterioration of the hippocampus, a portion of the brain involved in memory formation -- almost as significant as seen in people with Alzheimer's. Those who suffered a different form, in which judgment or language processing was impaired with little or no memory loss, had less deterioration of the hippocampus and were similar to normal subjects.

Both types of mild cognitive impairments are equally likely to result in Alzheimer's -- between 12 percent and 15 percent of them develop dementia annually -- but being able to distinguish between the two will be a boon for evaluating drugs or other therapies meant to slow the progression of the disease, Dr. Becker said. The 3-D imaging could also provide important hints for designing therapies.

"We simply don't know what the limits are of the technology," he said.

MRI brain scans were performed at Pitt on 20 people with the amnesiac form of cognitive impairment, 20 with the non-amnesiac form and 20 healthy subjects. The scans were converted to 3-D form at UCLA's Center for Neuro Imaging.

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