A Maternal Link to Alzheimer’s

Wall Street Journal-March 1, 2011

People with an immediate family history of Alzheimer’s disease are four to 10 times as likely to contract the condition. A new study now suggests the chances of getting Alzheimer’s are higher if your mother had it than if your father had it.

Jeffrey Burns, the director of the University of Kansas Medical Center’s Alzheimer’s and Memory Program, said the findings don’t mean that children of mothers with Alzheimer’s disease will develop the condition. “It’s not clear on an individual basis how much this risk applies,” he said.

Dr. Burns and other researchers are conducting a larger study as part of the university’s brain-aging project, which is comparing people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and individuals with little or no memory problems. As part of the brain-aging project, people undergo periodic MRI scans of the brain so researchers can track brain changes over time and see if those changes have an impact on the development and progression of Alzheimer’s. Researchers are also looking at whether things like exercise can cut the risk of Alzheimer’s or slow its progression. Other research has suggested changes in the brain occur long before symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear.

About five million people in the U.S. currently have Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive brain disorder that causes memory loss and eventually results in total disability and death. The number of new cases of Alzheimer’s are expected to sharply increase as the baby-boom generation ages.

The current study involved 53 people who were considered cognitively normal at the study’s start and were followed for two years. Eleven participants reported having a mother with Alzheimer’s and 10 reported having a father with the disease, while 32 people had no family history. The two groups were given brain scans and cognitive tests throughout the study.

Overall , the study found that subjects who reported a family history of Alzheimer’s disease showed an increase in “gray-matter atrophy,” or brain shrinkage, over the two-year period compared with people who didn’t have a family history of Alzheimer’s. Shrinking of the brain, or brain atrophy, occurs at a faster rate in people with Alzheimer’s compared with those without the disease.

Researchers then looked at changes in specific parts of the brain and found changes in two areas that are associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. They found “significantly greater,” or about twice as much, shrinkage in those regions among study participants whose mother’s had reported Alzheimer’s compared with those without a family history and those who reported having fathers with the disease.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will be published in the March 1 edition of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Write to Jennifer Corbett Dooren at jennifer.corbett-dooren@dowjones.com

~ by Butch on March 1, 2011.

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