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Could MRI Screen For Dementia Precursor?

November 18, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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White-matter lesions detected by MRI brain scans during midlife might predict cognitive impairment later in life, according to a new Australian study published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

“The association between brain white-matter lesions and cognitive impairment in old age is well established,” says the study. “However, little is known about this association in midlife.”

The research involved 428 subjects—232 women and 196 men. They were healthy 44- to 48-year-olds living in or near Canberra, Australia, who are part of a longitudinal study called the Personality And Total Health (PATH) Through Life Project. They underwent MRI scans and completed a variety of reaction and cognitive tasks.

The researchers didn’t exactly nail down an association between such lesions in midlife and eventual development of dementia. For that to happen, the subjects would have to be followed for a few years—which the researchers plan to do.

However, the study did find that some cognitive impairments were associated with the presence of white-matter lesions even among these relatively young people. “The findings suggest that cognitive deficits may have a neuropathological basis that manifests in some individuals during middle age,” says the study. It adds:

From a health care perspective, this underlines the view that population-based preventative strategies should start in early adulthood and not wait until mid- or later life.

David Bunce, PhD, the lead author, told HealthImaging.com, “The study lays open possibilities for screening, early detection, and intervention in health care settings.” Dr. Bunce is with the Centre for Mental Health Research at Australian National University in Canberra and the psychology department at Brunel University in London.

“The earlier we can intervene with people vulnerable to eventual dementia,” he said, “The greater the chances of preventing or delaying the disease onset.”

Dr. Bunce didn’t say this, but further research into the white-matter lesions—which, as the study points out, can originate in a variety of ways—might also lead to ways of preventing their occurrence in the first place.

Related seminar: Neuro & Musculoskeletal Imaging (new release!)

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