Brain thinning could predict dementia 5 to 10 years before symptoms, local study shows

UT Health San Antonio researchers have a fresh take on research that started in 1948

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio researchers are using data dating back to 1948 to discover a possible key to predicting dementia five to 10 years before symptoms appear.

The data followed the original participants, their kids and now their grandkids.

“They’ve been followed up for many, many years. I have the calendar of older visits because it’s crazy. You have to go back and say, ‘What year is this?’” said Dr. Claudia Satizabal with UT Health San Antonio’s Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases.

Satizabal has worked on this research for 10 years but has had a new goal in the last two years.

Local researchers partnered with others at UC Davis in a study that looked at continuous MRI scans to find out if the thinning of one part of the brain can predict dementia five to 10 years before symptoms start.

“We look at a bunch of brain scans from people with and without Alzheimer’s disease to build a model that could show us what were the regions that were compromised in patients with Alzheimer’s disease,” Satizabal said.

The study was published in December in “Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.”

It turns out that this brain thinning could truly be a dementia predictor.

“Gray matter was thinner in participants with Alzheimer’s disease,” Satizabal said.

She said the brain section showing thinning is the medial temporal lobe.

“It’s close to where the hippocampus — which we know is a region that is affected by the disease because it helps to encode and retrieve information and memories, which is one of the signs of Alzheimer’s,” Satizabal explained.

Satizabal pointed at one of the participant’s brain scans, where that part of the brain lit up in red and yellow.

“Dark red are regions where we want to look at more,” she said.

After the promising results, more research is already planned with collaborators across the U.S. and Europe.

The hope is to include more diverse participants like those in South Texas.

“We wouldn’t be able to do any of this analysis without the contribution of study participants because we followed these people for, you know, more than 10 years,” Satizabal said.

The participants take a lot of time out for the scans and even pay for them.

Their contribution to science could help accomplish the big long-term goal of eventually training medical professionals to routinely look for this when they do MRI scans of any kind.

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About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.