Can new research help us predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease?

Written by Hannah Makin

A recent collaborative study between Taylor Schmitz (University of Cambridge, UK) and Nathan Spreng (Cornell University, NY, USA) has provided strong evidence to suggest that the basal forebrain is the primary source of AD.
Until recently, the origin of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in the brain was a topic of much debate amongst researchers in the field. This study, published recently in Nature Communications, may prompt the development of therapeutic strategies that specifically target the basal forebrain, and therefore target AD at the very start of disease progression.

As recently demonstrated in molecular genetic studies, AD could be characterized by the spread of disease across closely interconnected regions of the brain. The point of disease origin and source of spread, however, remained unknown until this most recent collaborative research breakthrough.

This newly published paper examined data collected from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative database.

The data utilized in this study allowed the researchers to examine aged-matched patients who were either from cognitively normal, associated with mild cognitive impairment or classified as having AD. This study identified a pattern in the spread of disease, whereby basal forebrain degeneration preceded and predicted both AD pathology and memory impairment.

This research may lead the way to future treatment strategies targeting the basal forebrain specifically to prevent disease progression. This research may also enable us to predict the onset of AD in patients, prior to the spread of disease to other regions of the brain.

“Future molecular genetics work holds strong promise for developing therapeutic strategies to prevent the spread of pathology at stages of Alzheimer’s preceding cognitive decline,” commented Schmitz.

Knowledge of the exact starting point of AD is crucial to our understanding of early anatomical staging. This knowledge might also allow us to more clearly understand how and when symptoms will begin to take hold during the course of disease progression in newly diagnosed patients.

However, being able to pinpoint the earliest point of spread of AD in patients is not enough to ultimately cure the disease. Much work is still needed in order for us to more fully understand how we can prevent the disease.  However, as Schmitz states: “Our clarification of an earlier point of Alzheimer’s propagation is therefore of utmost importance for guiding endeavours to combat this devastating disease.”

Sources: Schmitz TW, Spreng NR, The Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. Basal forebrain degeneration precedes and predicts the cortical spread of Alzheimer’s pathology. Nat. Commun.  7, 13249 (2016);