Brain ‘map’ can help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease: Atlas can be used to make comparisons and highlight exact changes that occurred in brain structure – pinpointing an underlying sign of the disease

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh reported that a digital map of older brains could help in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease – a neurodegenerative disorder that occurs in older individuals. The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE, and was fundamentally supported by the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Imaging Network, A Platform for Scientific Excellence (SINAPSE), and the Medical Research Council.

Creating A Reliable Digital Map

According to the team, most of the previously developed brain maps are based on the brains of young and middle-aged individuals, which does not effectively represent the normal modifications that occur as the brain ages.

In their study, images of MRI scans from over 130 healthy older individuals (aged 60 and above) were used to create a somewhat ‘atlas’ of the brain. This detailed atlas could then be used to compare the brains of people with Alzheimer’s with a healthy aging brain.

Using Atlas To Diagnose

Using the atlas, the researchers could make effective comparisons and highlight the exact changes that occurred in the brain structure – pinpointing an underlying sign of the disease.

“A key sign of early Alzheimer’s disease is the loss of brain tissue in a region of the brain, known as the medial temporal lobe. These changes to the structure of the brain are often subtle and can be difficult to spot, but an MRI atlas could make it easier to detect them,” said the researchers.

 Future Prospects

The research team is developing many other digital atlases of healthy brains as well, creating a sort of lifetime depiction of the changes in brain morphology as we age. This project, entitled Brain Imaging in Normal Subjects (BRAINS) aims to help detect brain damage in various other conditions, such as pre-term birth and schizophrenia.

To ensure reliability and usefulness, researchers propose that brain-imaging centers should continue to gather MRI scans of healthy older individuals and work in tandem to create a large brain image bank. The ultimate goal will then be to use these atlases to aid the early-on diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases that develop as one ages.

Dr. David Alexander Dickie from The University of Edinburgh’s Brain Research Imaging Center and SINAPSE, and first author of the study, said, “We’re absolutely delighted with these preliminary results and that our brain MRI atlases may be used to support earlier diagnoses of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Earlier diagnoses are currently our strongest defence against these devastating diseases and, while our work is preliminary and ongoing, digital brain atlases are likely to be at the core of this defence.”