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Western researchers find link between brain damage and cognitive decline

Researchers at Western University are focusing on a potential “canary in the coal mine” for mental decline and are working on a blood test to screen for the troubling signal in the brain.

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Researchers at Western University are focusing on a potential “canary in the coal mine” for mental decline and are working on a blood test to screen for the troubling signal in the brain.

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The research team says a common brain injury in older people could be used to predict cognitive decline and identify patients most at risk of developing dementia, giving doctors a chance to start treatment before it happens. don’t be too late.

“Dementia can be a really daunting diagnosis for people,” said Austyn Roseborough, MD and PhD student in anatomy and cell biology, who led the research.

“If we can tell someone 10 years earlier that there are red flags in their brain, we can identify people who are suitable for clinical trials or who might respond well to therapies.”

Brain damage is tissue that has been damaged by injury or disease. Western researchers have analyzed a specific type of brain damage, white matter hyperintensities, which show up as bright spots on an MRI.

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These white matter hyperintensities are present in the brains of up to 60% of adults 50 years and older, although in varying numbers and severity. People with lesions can be completely asymptomatic, at least initially, Roseborough said.

“These lesions have been known for a long time, but because they’re so common, they’re difficult to interpret and they’re often overlooked,” Roseborough said Wednesday.

“As we search for them, we realize they are not benign. This is a point that people doing research in this area have been trying to get across for some time, but it’s hard to do with a single isolated study. By taking a deeper look at what is out there, we are able to better synthesize the information. »

Western’s team analyzed several studies on the long-term impact of these white matter lesions in specific groups, including people with mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke patients. cerebral.

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In all groups, having lesions predicted worse mental outcomes and faster rates of cognitive decline, the study found.

The link between future mental decline and white matter hyperintensities was strongest in people with existing cognitive impairment or a history of stroke.

Stroke patients with severe white matter damage were most likely to experience a decline in mental functioning between six months and five years after the stroke, according to the study. The group was also at increased risk of this decline developing into dementia.

While an MRI would identify white matter lesions in those at risk, Roseborough knows that it is not possible to offer the intensive and in-demand diagnostic imaging to large swaths of the population.

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She is now looking for markers in the blood for white matter hyperintensities. Finding a blood signal would mean doctors could use a blood test instead of a brain scan to screen patients for worrying lesions.

“Blood biomarkers that show changes in white matter hyperintensities could be a predictor of danger 20, 30 or even 40 years from now,” professor of anatomy and cell biology Shawn Whitehead said in a statement.

“The idea here is that if I have these things going on in my brain that will predict dementia years from now, there’s nothing I can do about it unless I know about it.”

The study is published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

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