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Advanced Imaging Magazine

Updated: January 12th, 2011 10:01 AM CDT

Imaging the Progression of Alzheimer's Disease

Tracking changes in the brain's ventricles may lead to new clues
An example of brain ventricle segmentation.
© Robarts Research Institute
An example of brain ventricle segmentation. The ventricle is essentially a space of fluid in the brain. As tissue around it begins to die, that space increases in size. Research is following the progression of the disease based upon the ventricle size.
A 3D rendering of the segmented lateral ventricles.
© Robarts Research Institute
A 3D rendering of the segmented lateral ventricles.
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By Barry Hochfelder

Alzheimer's disease doesn't play favorites and it doesn't care who it attacks. From the rich and famous like former President Ronald Reagan, to actress Rita Hayworth to Benjamin O. Davis, the first black general in the U.S. Air Force to the hard-working blue-collar guy next door. The disease is named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer, the German physician who in 1906 examined the brain tissues of Auguste D., a patient who died of a perplexing mental illness, and discovered the abnormal clumps today called amyloid plaques and the tangled bundles of fibers known as neurofibrillary tangles. Those plaques and fibers are considered signs of AD.

Scientists today think there are a number of causes for AD. There are many new areas of research, led by The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. In addition to areas like genetics, inflammation and drug research, the NIA has created a neuroimaging study called the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI). The study is is a public-private research partnership.

NIA-supported scientists are testing a number of drugs to see if they prevent AD, slow the disease or help reduce symptoms. Its web site explains that ADNI observes and tracks changes in normal individuals, in people with mild cognitive impairment—a condition that often precedes Alzheimer's—and in people with the disease. It is a $60-million, five-year study that began recruiting in early 2006. About 800 older people at 58 sites in the United States and Canada participate.

ADNI has built a data base available to qualified researchers worldwide. Among its thousands of MRI and PET scan brain images and clinical data are samples and brain scans from 200 people with Alzheimer's, 400 with mild cognitive impairment and 200 healthy people.

One of those participating sites is the Robarts Research Institute in London, Ontario, Canada, which has a large imaging research group. Robert Bartha, Ph.D., is a scientist at Robarts and Associate Professor in the Department of Medical Biophysics at the University of Western Ontario.

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